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The shrimp boats in Apalachicola ply the Gulf of Mexico.
The shrimp boats in Apalachicola ply the Gulf of Mexico. (Corbis Photo / Richard Bickel)

At water's edge

Where fishing or wishing to slow down and savor a sunset are the perfect things to do

By Diane Speare Triant
Globe Correspondent / November 4, 2007
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- My husband, Jim, and I are heading to the "sport fishing capital of the world" for a weekend. It has always been his dream to hook a marlin - or any other big game fish - so he has suggested driving to the Florida Keys from our vacation base in Fort Lauderdale for a few days in Islamorada. The exotic name does sound intriguing. Only problem is, I get seasick on a pier and queasy at the sight of a doomed creature wiggling on a hook. So I say, "Sure, honey, let's go," and hope for the best.

As we approach the Keys (derived from the Spanish "cayo," for low, flat islands), the terrain gets boggy and swampy: gator country. We're skirting the Everglades. Soon we leave this "river of grass" behind, and US Route 1 becomes the Overseas Highway that bisects the Keys. Mostly, it's a two-lane road with two-way traffic. Tropical foliage hugs the pavement, and here and there a single-level shop appears. Many are kitschy, some kinky: B.P. Cargo, selling Caribbean T-shirts inspired by Jimmy Buffett lyrics, or The Romance Store, offering "costumes and spike heels." There's an anything-goes freedom to living on the fringe of the land.

As we drive, Florida Bay (entryway to the Gulf of Mexico) is visible to the right, and the Atlantic Ocean to the left.

"What happens during a hurricane?" Jim wonders. A visitors center in Key Largo provides the answer. In 1912, Florida's railroad magnate, Henry Flagler, extended his railway south from Miami, through the Keys, to the tip at Key West. Critics who dubbed it "Flagler's Folly" had it right. On Labor Day 1935, a 200-mile-an-hour hurricane pushed an 18-foot tidal wave across the upper Keys, flinging the tracks about like toothpicks and killing 800 people. It remains the strongest hurricane on record to strike the United States. "The only thing still standing," says the "Great Locations: Florida Keys" guidebook, "is an angel that marked a grave in an Islamorada cemetery."

Less than an hour down the road, we cross into Islamorada ("purple isle") and spot the manicured entrance to our hotel, Cheeca Lodge & Spa. (The Keys follow a mile marker address system, where posts every mile indicate the distance from Key West, the southernmost city in the country. Cheeca Lodge's address is MM 82.)

In the courtyard, palm trees sway above guests in wicker chairs sipping tropical concoctions. Our room turns out to be a charming cabin-on-stilts, with a lazy paddle fan on the ceiling and a screened-in porch overlooking the beach. You can almost hear Bacall teaching Bogie how to whistle. The rustic island feel goes only so far, though: Designer comforters and a wide-screen TV on the wall help justify the high-season rates.

It's almost time for one of Islamorada's main attractions: sunset. The desk clerk alerted us at check-in: "Remember, the sun sets at 6:21. We're one of the few places on the East Coast where you can watch it go down on the ocean." Apparently, it's a nightly celebration.

So we head to Morada Bay, a popular cafe on the bayside, to watch the phenomenon. And it is impressive: A blinding yellow sun floats above a smattering of fishing boats. Gawkers in sunglasses sit on the sand in colorful Adirondack chairs, watching it morph into a giant, shaky orange ball - like a water balloon about to burst. A lone guitarist under a thatched canopy with surfboard supports plays his original "sun-going-down" composition (hokey for sure, but still appealing). Darkness descends, kids skitter about with glow sticks, and their parents - now hungry for local seafood - wander to dinner tables arranged on the sand, just feet from the shoreline.

The menu is tempting. Will it be yellowtail snapper grilled with Vera Cruz vegetable sauce (at least a dozen varieties of snapper inhabit Islamorada's waters) or herb-crusted grouper in a butter-wine sauce? Problem solved: I order one, Jim the other. We share our meals with our toes curled in the sand and a gentle zephyr ruffling our hair. It feels far from the mainland, more like we've landed in the Caribbean. The island way of life - slow of pace and gentle on the spirit - has embraced us.

Next morning we're up at 6 for breakfast before Jim spends the day fishing. A friend told us not to miss the Hungry Tarpon Restaurant at Robbie's of Islamorada. He was right. But it's not the eggs and coffee that can't be missed. It's the tarpon that swim up to the docks, where you can feed them. Unafraid, the 5-foot-long fish arrive about 100 strong. So do the pelicans, who swoop in trying to steal the tarpons' breakfast.

After dropping Jim at the Whale Harbor Marina for his split-charter on Hopalong, it's time to take in two promising local shops. At the Sandal Factory, there is an absence of closed-toe shoes and sneakers. Instead, beach sandals in numerous styles crowd the aisles devoted to Mephisto, Sebago, Tatami, Minnetonka, and many others. I saunter out in gray criss-cross Merrells.

Next is a visit to Worldwide Sportsman on the Old Marina. The facade is gingerbread-trimmed with fish etched on the glass. "The owner shipped in the storefront from Paris," a store clerk reports.

This spacious fishing outfitter offers a sizable selection of saltwater, freshwater, and fly-fishing gear. Resort wear and gifts are a sideline. There are trendy bathing trunks for Jim and a package of Key lime pie mix for me. I'm hoping to replicate the velvety texture of the signature dessert that seduced our taste buds last night.

Back at the Cheeca Lodge in the Curt Gowdy Lounge, an in-progress tribute to Gowdy - the famed Red Sox sportscaster and Keys fisherman who died last year - is especially poignant to a Bostonian raised on his twangy play-by-play.

After admiring the trophy fish adorning the lounge walls and taking a refreshing dip in the nearby free-form pool, a stroll along the 525-foot-long ocean pier is in order. Fathers and kids fish off its edge, assailed again by hungry pelicans (the counterparts to Cape Cod's seagulls).

I continue walking the acreage, weaving through the beach bungalows and spa area, and emerge at a curious fenced-in section on the sand. A sign reads Pioneer Cemetery. Blocks of broken gravestones and statuary surround a stone angel on a pedestal. It's a chastening discovery. Here, on our hotel's property is the only holdover from the 1935 hurricane. Moved, I retire to our screened porch to read and reflect, comprehending why Ernest Hemingway always returned to the Keys for renewal.

A bride and groom appear, intent on marrying by the sea as the sun sets, while Jim returns, sunburned and wind-kissed. He carries his catch in a plastic bag. No sailfish or marlin, but he enjoyed reeling in some grouper and an elusive mutton snapper.

"We're off to a 'hook 'n' cook,' " he says. Turns out most of the local eateries will cook your catch for you.

So we're sitting on the porch at Lazy Days, awaiting our meal. The waiter arrives balancing an enormous platter laden with Jim's fish generously garnished, prepared in three distinct recipes: grilled; baked with buttered crumbs; and baked with a vegetable/cheese topping. Every morsel is tasty, introducing new meaning to the concept "fresh."

I've found the best activity on Islamorada for a non-fisherman: Let the eager anglers exhaust the day (and themselves) hauling in the catch, then sit back and savor the spoils.

Diane Speare Triant, a writer in Wellesley Hills, can be reached at dtriant@gmail.com.

If You Go

Getting there

Pass-A-Grille is at the south end of St. Pete Beach, three minutes from Interstate 75 and a 33-minute drive from Tampa International Airport.

Getting around

Suncoast Beach Trolley
727-540-1900
psta.net/beachtrolley.htm for schedule and map.
Serves the Gulf beach communities, $1.50.

Merry Pier
801 Pass-A-Grille Way
Rent bikes for $22 a day or $60 a week.

What to do

Gulf Beaches Historical Museum
115 10th Ave.
727-552-1610
Displays archives and artifacts of the barrier islands from the 1500s to present. Publishes a self-guided walking tour.
Admission free.

Deep-sea fishing and barrier island excursions
727-360-1400
charterboatescape.com
Depart daily from Merry Pier.

Evander Preston Contemporary Jewelry Design
106 Eighth Ave.
727-367-7894 or 800-586-EVAN
evanderpreston.com
Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Where to stay

Pass-A-Grille's popular smaller lodgings often fill a year in advance for the winter-spring season.

Island's End Resort
1 Pass-A-Grille Way
727-360-5023
islandsend.com
Fully equipped cottages start at $135.

Inn On the Beach
1401 Gulf Way
727-360-8844
innonbeach.com
Reasonable and inviting. Rooms with kitchenettes start at $95.

Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa
3400 Gulf Blvd.
727-360-1881, 866-728-2206
doncesar.com
Standard rooms start at $229. Packages and promotions available.

Frank T. Hurley Associates
2506 Pass-A-Grille Way
727-367-1949
hurley-associates.com
Largest selection of rentals two weeks or longer. Hurley wrote the book on Pass-A-Grille, $8 at the Gulf Beaches museum.

Where to eat

Shaners Land & Sea Market
2000 Pass-A-Grille Way
727-367-4292
Everything for the self-catered holiday.

Comfort and Joy
808 Pass-A-Grille Way
727-367-5925
Farmers' market Friday through Sunday emphasizes organic produce reasonably priced.

Wharf Restaurant & Bar
2001 Pass-A-Grille Way
727-367-9469
wharfrestaurant.org
Quintessential local seafood shack on the water. Love the plexiglass windows.
Oyster sandwiches, captain's platters - go ahead, order it fried.

The Black Palm
109 8th Ave.
727-360-5000
blackpalmrestaurant.com
Latin ingredients receive a high-end finish but the best recipes are rustic, courtesy of the Chilean chef's mother.

Information
For general information, mypass-a-grille.com

For a walking tour you can print out, floridahistory.org/westcoastfla/passagr.htm

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