Grand Cayman: Back to the Island

Seven Mile Beach, on Grand Cayman’s west shore.

 About a million years ago, back before grown men proudly wore Crocs in public and when “being green” just meant you were the jealous type, Mrs. Bunny and I spent six glorious days in Grand Cayman on our honeymoon. We were mere travel newbs at the time, but still managed to eat, drink, and explore a whole bunch of GCI’s indigenous offerings, even despite the fact that Mrs. Bunny applied a ludicrously inadequate sunblock level 7 on her fair skin and turned the hue of Ragu spaghetti sauce on Day 2 and didn’t feel much like moving around.

So when GB’s Chief Photographer Kathy and her fiance Dave decided on a beachfront wedding ceremony this past summer on Spott’s Beach along Grand Cayman’s southern coast, it didn’t take much convincing (or any, really) for us to check the YES box. We even brought the kids this time.

Grand Cayman is the big brother of sibling islands Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, with Cuba to the north and Jamaica just next door to the east. Its long stretches of powdered white sand beaches and luminescent turquoise waters make this an absolutely stunning Caribbean destination,  and one with a hair-sheddingly high pricetag to boot. Grand Cayman is a financial juggernaut, home to nearly 600 banking institutions and a preferred spot for those Armani-wearing, money laundering types, so the cost of goods and services is already inherently high. Add in an unfavorable exchange rate with the American dollar, and your Amex card may start to leak from overuse.

So, after a brutally early takeoff at BWI and plane change in Miami, we descended down through ginormous white clouds so thick they look like whipped cream, approaching Owen Roberts International Airport with the long strip of world-famous Seven Mile Beach stretching out on our left. We came in hot, the pilot standing on the brake pedal to land and stop on a runway that’s roughly the same length as a placemat. A live band greeted us with light steel drum music as we crossed the hot, sticky tarmac to the tiny terminal. Ahhhhhh, yes. Island time.

♥ GB Side Note: Cell Service

Verizon’s cell service and data plans are monumentally expensive on the island, which prompted all of us to leave our iPhones in Airplane Mode for the entire trip. However, as long as we had a wi-fi connection, we were able to text between all of our iPhones and even use FaceTime video without invoking the data plan. 

GOING MOBILE

Thanks to Mrs. Bunny’s insightful research, we bypassed the major rental car counters there in the airport, and walked across the small parking lot to Andy’s Rent a Car. Andy’s is local, with the lowest rates on the island. Still, weekly rate was more than $300.00 for a bad-assed 64 horsepower Hyundai i10 that was roughly the same size as a washing machine. Somehow we managed to squeeze four people and luggage into the mini subcompact, clown car-style, and set off.

Funny. The car we rented isn’t in their promo photo.

Now you’d think that finding the beach that we just flew over would be a snap, and you’d be wrong. Moments after leaving the airport, we’re lost. Maybe it was the happy little map the rental car lady gave us that was about as coherent as Keith Richards at a frat party. Or maybe the culprit was the proliferation of British-style roundabouts installed about every ten feet on all their roadways. I was on zero sleep and dealing with a steering wheel that some idiot put on the wrong side of the car, and the roundabouts truly sucked. I finally gave up, hung an abrupt and illegal u-turn on a busy one way avenue, and dove into a nearby Esso gas station for directions.

But no worries. Once you acclimate, Caymanian driving is pretty smooth. All of the rental cars on the island have exclusive white license plates, alerting the locals that you’re a tourist and therefore a liability, and most were patient with us.

If you don’t feel like renting, there are plenty of official (and unofficial) taxi cabs willing to give you a lift. Just walk along the side of the road, and soon someone  will stop and offer a ride in exchange for a few bills. Kathy and fiance Dave traveled the entire island this way on their last Cayman trip.

Mrs. Bunny Says: “Yes, even I became competent at driving on the left with steering wheel on the opposite side of our little roller skate. Just expect that you will inadvertently switch on the windshield wipers on a regular basis when reaching for the turn signal since they’re backwards on right side drive cars, much to the giggling delight of the clowns in the back seat.”

Our boys posing with the fly whip Hyundai.

ACCOMMODATIONS & PROVISIONS

Datsa lotta rooms.

A long row of exquisite resorts makes for an impressive pastel skyline along lower Seven Mile Beach. They’re all plenty swanky, so you’ll be shelling out at least $375+ per night for a standard room that may not even have a water view. Seven Mile is all glitz and glamour, so you won’t see any modestly-priced motor lodges in the area–nuthin but ultra posh.

Since we brought our two boys, and a week in a hotel room can be more than claustrophobic for four people, Mrs. Bunny hunted down condo rentals instead, along the northern bit of Seven Mile Beach, finding a good number of options available on the beach.

We ended up choosing Aqua Bay Club. For about the same price as a Seven Mile hotel room, Aqua Bay provided a superb two bedroom beachfront unit, with two full baths, almost full kitchen (full-size fridge, dishwasher, stove top, microwave, but no oven), living room with flat screen TV and satellite, daily maid service, complimentary wi-fi, and a perfect screened-in porch that opened out to the sand, with pool, hot tub, and gas grills right there. The view is pure Corona Beer commercial.

The view from our condo’s back door. You likey?

While Grand Cayman used to be slow and easy, the greater Georgetown/lower Seven Mile area is now awash with non-stop traffic and throngs of people, and becomes even worse when a cruise ship pulls into port and dumps a few thousand more souls in town. But the upper end of Seven Mile Beach is far more spread out and chill. Aqua Bay’s beach was devoid of crowds and offered excellent snorkeling just offshore, though the coal and rock underfoot was a bit of a challenge to navigate when getting in and out of the sea.

Mrs Bunny Says: “Definitely prefer the condo atmosphere. Mingling with the locals is easier, like talking to our cleaning lady while we were both doing laundry. Furthermore, when we checked out, our lovely hostess gave us hugs and kisses and seemed genuinely sorry to see us leave (us too). Try getting that in the hotel zone!”

Kathy and the soon to be Mr. Kathy were staying at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort a few miles south of us, in the middle of all the hoopla. The multi-story showplace is impressive, and  Mrs. Bunny and I quickly realized that it’s the same place we stayed on our honeymoon back in the 90s, when the property was owned by Radisson–a very cool and unexpected revelation.

Marriott’s Seven Mile Beach Resort

♥ GB Side Note: Hurricane Ivan

The Grand Cayman we remember from years ago is essentially gone. In 2006, Hurricane Ivan’s wrath changed the island forever, with rampant destruction and devastation everywhere. Six years later, signs of Ivan’s impact are still clearly visible. And the horror stories we heard from locals who lived through it sounded like they were describing a nuclear bomb strike.

If you don’t go condo, and aren’t a fan of the high-rise tourist stackers, your best bet is to check out the hotels on the island’s East End. It’s more quiet and rural on that side, which is usually more of our speed anyway. The Reef is a really nice option, as is Compass Point Resort

Mrs. B and I headed to Fosters Food Fair for provisions. It’s a small chain where the Caymanians shop and we found local goodies like oxtail, scotch bonnet peppers (face meltingly hot!!!), key limes, and real ginger beer. Most shoppers bring their own grocery bags with them, but you can buy at the register if needed.

Mrs Bunny Says: “The Fosters near our condo us was very third world; a little culture shock. But the oxtail at the food bar was amazing and so were the jerk chicken wings.”

The cashier also gave us directions to a liquor store close by. Now, Grand Cayman has a reputation as a safe island and we were all over the place on our last visit, but this time we needed to be buzzed into the neighborhood liquor store and were quickly sized up by the armed security guard inside. Crikie! A very Southeast DC moment.

Rum is our choice in the Caribbean since it’s produced locally. But man, you’d have to be Donald Trump to become an alcoholic down there. For example, a 1.75 liter of Bacardi, which runs about $22 at the wine and spirits place back home, was a whopping $70 USD! And local brands like Tortuga and Jamaica’s Appleton’s were even more. It was at this point that I decided to simply stop looking at pricetags altogether and go wid’ da flow, mon. Plus, I was thirsty.

 GB Side Note: Drink Local

Beer fans, make sure you check out GCI’s local brews while there. White Tip and Caybrew are really nice examples of classic German pale lagers, while Ironhorse is a heavier bock with great flavor. And of course, Red Stripe is brewed and bottled one island over.

As far as liquor goes, rum is the staple. The local Tortuga brand is good, as is Appleton’s, but for a real treat that we can’t get in the States, be on the lookout for authentic Cuban product like Havana Club. The 7 anos anejo (aged 7 years) in particular is una fiesta en tu boca. 

Cayman beer. Good stuff.

LET’S EAT

Bring your appetite. Cayman food is an enticing combination of Caribbean spice and seafood, with old world English pomp, and there’s excellent examples all over the island.

Casual

Rackam’s Bar & Grill.

Rackam’s sits on the water’s edge, overlooking Georgetown Harbor. They’re famous for their Jerk Chicken, which is highly spicy and truly amazing, as well as local fresh fish served Caymanian style, with grilled peppers and onions. The Red Snapper was fantastic. For a touch of added tourism, Rackam’s does a Tarpon feeding every evening which draws dozens of those big suckers in the waters just off the bar.

Coconut Joe’s is on the Seven Mile strip, and does a credible job with fish & chips, jerk chicken sandwiches, etc on a huge palm tree-covered deck. It was fine, not  great, but we’d go back.

Upscale

To be honest, we didn’t do a lot of fine dining while on the island. Besides the sunrise wedding ceremony (yes, sunrise), we swam, we snorkeled, we drank like sailors, we relaxed, and tried to avoid tasks like shaving and combing our hair.

Having said that, we did have two fancy-pants culinary experiences.

Sunday Brunch at Ferdinand’s at the Westin Resort was top shelf all the way. The outdoor patio had a pristine tropical view and feel, and featured a loaded omelette and waffle station, as well as excellent seafood, exotic fruits, and traditional breakfast fare galore. We learned it was also a popular place with the natives when a small land crab came cruising under our table, clicking along the tile floor.

Ferdinand’s at the Westin Resort.

On the other hand, dinner at The Wharf is one that I believe our entire party would like to forget. When the best thing you can say about an upscale dining experience is that the service was good, that’s an issue. Mrs. Bunny is a huge fan of conch chowder, and always orders it at every restaurant that has it on the menu. Everywhere else, the Conch Chowder was really good, like MD Crab Soup. But The Wharf’s chowder was lukewarm, bland, and tasted like it came from a can. Likewise, the rest of the food was meh at best. In all, a disappointing meal that didn’t come close to matching the fat price tag.

Dining In

If you do feel like cooking, we highly recommend stopping by the Open Air Fish Market in Georgetown. It’s on the waterfront near Rackam’s and Eden Rock, and features fresh catch coming in all day long. Mrs Bunny and I hit them up one morning around 9, a bit too early to have a wealth of choices, but we did pick up some Amberjack and Red Snapper that was just pulled out of the sea an hour before. We waited and watched while a big guy with a thick accent cleaned and filleted them like a ninja. No fishy smell whatsoever, which is always a good sign of seafood freshness.

Fresh catch for dinner that fed all six of us hungry fools = $35. Nice.

Cayman Fish Market. It’s the real deal, and it’s cash only.

The Golden Bunny Award Goes To…

Our top choice  for sustenance in Grand Cayman is a very cool, off-the-beaten-path gem on the island’s Northwest coast. Macabuca is an open air tiki bar that is, hands-down, the best bar we’ve ever visited. Period. Macabuca was so good, once we found it we ended up going back the next day, AND the day after that.

Their food comes right out of the upscale Cracked Conch restaurant next door and it’s GOOD. They do fresh conch three ways: fried fritters, ceviche, and cracked conch, and they’re all amazing. So are their sandwiches and salads. There’s a big selection of beers and a wide choice of cocktails, including several signature frozen and non-alcoholic concoctions. Frozen Bananas Foster was fantastic.

The music was a perfect mesh of reggae and old school country, and our Canadian bartender was both friendly and clairvoyant with refills. Turns out he and his wife owned a restaurant on Seven Mile that was destroyed by Ivan, and now he’s content to mix cocktails and let someone else take the risk.

My view from the bar at Macabuca.

Sitting at the bar, staring at the crusty limestone coastline and infinite blue water with a Scotch Bonnet Bloody Mary in hand and the beautiful Mrs. Bunny in a bikini next to me, there was no place on the planet that could have been any better. In fact, I’m truly surprised that I’m not still there.

But I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet.

Macabuca has a large stepladder maybe 25 feet from the bar that descends down into a tiny cove, with a reef that’s teeming with marine life just offshore. So, you eat, have a few drinks, and then grab your snorkel or scuba gear and go diving for a while. When you’re done, come back up the ladder, drop your wet gear by the rail, and your bar stool is still waiting for you.

Mrs. Bunny Says: “He ain’t lyin’! Out of the two of us, Mr. Bunny is certainly the bar connoisseur. BUT I fricking love Macabuca! I am still craving the food. Combine that with the cool atmosphere and the snorkeling (with amazing underwater stuff to see) between drinks and I want to go back to Grand Cayman for this bar alone.”

Macabuca Bar & Grill. That stepladder descends into total Jacques Cousteau-ness.

 

STUFF TO DO

As you might expect, most of the doings there are water-based. And that was fine by us. I mean, if you don’t like the water, what the hell are you doing in the Caribbean in the first place???

Diving/Snorkeling

Grand Cayman is awash with great opportunities to check out the underwater world, no matter your experience and skill level. Our advice: don’t leave your hotel or condo without your snorkel gear. You never know when you’ll stumble upon the perfect place to get wet.

Eden Rock sits right in the heart of Georgetown and has a fully stocked dive shop onsite. Jump in off the rock wall and get busy. There’s a shallow shipwreck just offshore on your right that’s only in about 20 feet of water and loaded with fish. And the coral formation that gives the place its name is about 1/4 mile out and 50 feet down. Go a few hundred feet south, and you’ll find Devil’s Grotto. Snorkelers and divers alike will love it.

As you swim along, don’t be surprised if you quickly develop an entourage of black and yellow sergeant majors and other cool little fish. They’ll simply cruise along with you, happily protected by your size in the open water. Great time to have a Lifeproof case for your iPhone for pics and video.

If you’re a serious scuba type, there are incredible offshore dive sites that are among the world’s best, with excursions departing from every corner of the island, and several resorts wholly dedicated to scuba. Check out DiveCayman.com for more info.

Spott’s Beach is a small and secluded stretch of sand on the south shore that’s a locals favorite. Like many other beaches and reefs on the island, it’s adjacent to a small cemetery. The coral and rock walls that drop down to the beach are incredible.

After Kathy and Dave tied the knot on Spotts pier, we dove in and swam with loggerhead sea turtles, which was pretty danged amazing.

On your way there from Seven Mile you’ll pass the Old Shoe Tree, which is exactly what it sounds like: a tall tree adorned with footwear of all sizes. It was originally started years ago by a local artist who was tired of seeing people’s garbage carelessly dumped all over the place. So he gathered up all the old shoes he found, and started nailing them to a roadside tree. People have been adding to it ever since.

The happy couple on Spott’s Beach pier, just after their beautiful sunrise wedding.

Stingray City

Sorry, but this is a must-do. We very rarely make statements like that, because we’d rather that you make your own choices based on our “suggestions”, but yes, it’s that cool. Stingray City is on an open water sandbar at the top of the Sound in the island’s center. Apparently commercial fisherman used to cut up the day’s catch and dump the guts overboard, and the rays flocked to the smorgasbord. Eventually they got used to being around people and now it’s somewhat of a stingray petting zoo. Last time, we took a boat trip there and swam with them in about 15 feet of water. It was amazing.

For this trip, we decided to try a jet ski tour there instead, and rented gleaming new Waverunners and a tour guide from Ebanks Watersports (a far cry from the beat-to-crap hooptie watercraft we’ve booked in Florida). Cost was $175 USD per Waverunner for the 2.5 hour tour, and IMO worth every penny.

Blazing across the open blue, Waverunner flat out in Sport Mode, the sun huge and heavy overhead, it was pure elation. And it’s futile to try to explain it, but believe me when I tell you that just when we thought the water couldn’t get any more beautiful, it did. The colors became even vibrant and clearer, the small, dancing waves gleaming to the point of luminescence….I lifted off the throttle, came to a stop, and just drank it all in.

After a 20 minute ride, we rafted up the Waverunners together and jumped in. The area was semi-crowded with other jet skiers and a few tour boats, and at first we didn’t see anything. But then dark shapes were moving, sweeping their side fins like birds and gliding along. These weren’t those little things in the city aquarium, they were huge! We found footing on the sandbar, and they were all around us. Our tour guide gathered one the size of patio table in his arms, and everyone petted her smooth skin and kissed her for good luck.

Them dark things underwater sure ain’t rocks.

Yes, stingrays can be dangerous, and a few people were freaking out as the rays swam towards them. But apart from having to hop over a few as they floated under us, it was all very calm and easygoing. Our whole crew loved it; especially the kids.

After hanging with the rays, we followed the guide to nearby Barrier Reef for snorkeling, loaded with huge sea fans, colorful coral, and fish galore.

Mrs. Bunny Note: “Yes, Stingray City is a must. While you can get cheaper deals going on a tour boat, the intimate jet ski tour was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience for our boys. How often do you see looks of amazement and wonder from a 17 and 20 year old? Exactly.”

Road Tripping

You just don’t get the full experience of Grand Cayman by staying drunk and pampered on Seven Mile Beach the whole time, so we piled into our mobile Washing Machine and set off for Rum Point on the Northeast coast of the island.

I love a good Island Road Trip.

Along the way we passed cool stuff like Chester’s famous Fish Fry Stand, Blackbeard’s Caves in the southern port of Bodden Town, and countless other indigenous sights that we didn’t see in the tourist zone.

Rum Point is a favorite of the locals. And since it was Sunday, the day off for most Caymanians, the parking lot was packed.

Dave at Rum Point. What’s amazing about this pic is that the beach was packed, yet there’s nobody in the photo!

We grabbed chaise lounges near the palm tree covered beach, and mixed and mingled.

Rum Point is home to the Wreck Bar, and it’s said that this is where the frozen Mudslide cocktail was conceived. Whether it’s true or folklore, they were tasty on a hot day.

With so much foot traffic, the  water was actually murky, which didn’t help when my sunglasses slipped off my face and <ploop!> out of sight. Thankfully Kathy’s probing foot saved the day.

When storm clouds began to gather, we packed up and rolled to Over the Edge, a little North Shore locals joint just down the road for a drink. We walked into the bar, and EVERYone was glued to the Olympics on TV. Moments later, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt smoked the other runners and won gold, setting a new world record. The place went absolutely bananas, celebrating a victory for their (semi) local hero. What a moment.

Night Life

No idea. After a full day of swimming, snorkeling, tennis, and cocktails, none of us had the energy to check out the bar scene. I know; we’re lame. We did hear what sounded like quality live reggae music coming from a few different places on our way back from dinner, if that helps.

GB Side Note: Critters

Just so’s you know, there are some interesting animals both in and out of the water that might catch you off guard if you don’t expect to see them. Lizards are all over the place, including some pretty big iguanas. Pretty cool to see. Just don’t leave the door open, or they’ll come right on in. 

Then there’s the aforementioned land crabs, one of which popped out of the bushes and chased my Uncle Charlie down West Bay Road one night, a long time ago. And just like Key West, chickens run wild, cock-a-doodle-doodling in the distance whenever they feel like it.

Chicken at the airport.

In the water, keep an eye out for barracuda. They’re much more aggressive than sharks (which are obviously there too, but typically stay further offshore) and will quickly chase any shiny thing they see. Remove all jewelry before diving, snorkeling, and swimming or run the risk of becoming a chew toy.

One diver told us that a barracuda even took a chunk out of one of her flippers because it was clear and shiny.

When checking out coral, look but don’t touch. You don’t want to get too close anyway, as those dark holes can be the home of moray eels. Morays are naturally mean and nasty, and their teeth are sharp as needles. Don’t give them a reason to taste you. 

 

Other Stuff

Other notable attractions on the island include the Cayman Motor Museum, which has a formidable collection of classic Ferraris and other exotics, and the Turtle Farm, which is an exploration center that’s especially cool for the little ones. There’s also a black limestone formation just off the main road called Hell, which is free of charge, and cool to check out for about two minutes, and has its own post office so you can send a postcard to your friends from Hell. It was a lot more rundown and junky than we remembered. And if you’ve seen the island’s northwest coast, it ALL looks like that.

 

 GB Side Note: Safety

As far as islands go, Grand Cayman is considered to be one of the safer destinations in the Caribbean. And we did feel truly comfortable exploring all over the place, away from tourist hotspots.              

Having said that, there’s rising concern over the increase in drug trafficking and other organized crime from Jamaica. And at the same liquor store where Mrs. Bunny and I saw the armed security guard, Kathy was hassled by an aggressive guy a few days later who demanded money and tried to get into her car while Dave was inside buying beer. She quickly locked the door and got him to leave, but scary to say the least. Just be smart–it ain’t Disneyland. 

(SADLY) LEAVING ON A JET PLANE

Our flight home was scheduled for early afternoon, so we made it a point to sneak back to Macabuca one last time for lunch. Yum.

It was easier to find the airport than it was to leave it the week before, and before long, we were sitting in the departures terminal, each of us mentally struggling to hatch a plot that will allow us to stay longer. A LOT longer.

And in a twist of fate, Mother Nature grants our wish, in the form of a 2.5 hour delay due to storms in Florida; a problem since we were connecting in Miami once again. I used the time wisely, buying rum at the duty free shop and hitting the bar.

I can’t stress this next point enough: DO NOT CONNECT THRU MIAMI ON YOUR WAY HOME! Connecting in Miami from an international flight means you also go through Customs in Miami, and we found ourselves in a snaking line that HAD to have 3,000 people in it. We were already running late because of the flight delay, and we didn’t need this. We made it through Customs, ran through a massive sea of people to find our luggage pieces spread out all over the baggage claim area, yanked them over to a disinterested airline rep, BACK through security, and hustled to our gate, only to find out that the flight to BWI was delayed as well. Ugh….bienvenidos al Miami.

Our last sunset on the island, on the beach at Aqua Bay Club.

SUMMARY

Grand Cayman remains a stunningly beautiful Caribbean vacation spot that’s suitable for all ages. They’re genuinely friendly, they speak English as their primary language, and you’re not trapped inside some all-inclusive compound the entire time. Just know that your hard earned US dollar is worth about 80 cents there. Further, Caymanian cost of living is so high that several locals we spoke with said that it’s actually cheaper to fly to Miami a few times a year and hit our big box stores to buy clothing, household items, and other goods for their families. Expensive? Yes. Unforgettable? Definitely.

If it’s an island destination you seek that’s a step apart from the Bahamas, Virgin Islands, etc, without the safety restrictions of Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, Grand Cayman awaits.

GALLERY

Mrs. Bunny snorkeling at Stingray City before the rays showed up. (is that water incredible or what?)

Morning on the beach at Aqua Bay Club.

Cruise ships in the harbor might LOOK cool, but it means thousands more tourists underfoot.

We loved the lizards.

Macabuca’s Frozen Bananas Foster was very tasty and very STRONG.

Rum Point.

Mr Bunny, on the sea wall at Eden Rock.

Waiting for our flight home. Kathy’s expression summed it up for all of us.

Rackams nightly Tarpon Feeding.

Mr. Bunny.

Chilling on the beach with the boys at Aqua Bay Club condo.

© 2012 Getaway Bunny. All rights reserved.

A Gearhead’s Euro Dream Come True (Part One)

I always thought that weekend jaunts to Europe were reserved for nitro-fueled rock stars, self-destructive offspring of industrial billionaires, and diamond merchants (like this guy).

Sadly, I don’t find myself falling into any of those categories these days.

Yet here we are, shuffling through security at Dulles International on a muggy July afternoon, bound for Western Germany’s Rhineland and a flat-out, 4-day automotive-nirvana, including Formula 1 at the Nurburgring, hot laps (in a rental car) on the legendary Nordschleife, and high-speed autobahn barnstorming.

On the excursion is my 17 year old son Derek, a lifelong racing fan who just graduated high school and is headed to study engineering at Lehigh University in the Fall. My father is aboard as well, himself a former sports car racer, and the one who’s responsible for implanting the motorsports bug in yours truly, pretty much at birth.

Three generations of speed freaks, jetting off to the birthplace of internal combustion. Um, Hell yeah.

The flight is an overnighter, and since it’s easier to teach trees to sing than it is to sleep in coach, we watch in-flight movies instead, drink bad airline coffee and stare at the black Atlantic below.

FRIDAY

9:00 am 

We land in Frankfurt, and blow thru customs like the wind. Hit our first (and very rare) batch of  Teutonic attitude at the Avis counter, when their customer service rep completely ignores us, chatting nonchalantly with a co-worker, then argues about the validity of the reservation confirmation I have in my hand. Grampa vehemently opposes the tiny Citroen subcompact they’re thrusting upon us, and we end up in an Audi A4 diesel wagon with the S-Line trim package that’s slick, sturdy, and comfy, yet has roughly the same acceleration rate as an insurance seminar ($151.00 US per day, plus tax. Note: tiny Euro hatch was over $100 per day on its own).

Comfy and stylish, yet slower than an MVA line.

The Audi has built-in navi, but it’s nearly impossible to figure out, and even more difficult to comprehend once we do. Luckily I’d also brought along my Tom Tom, and spent the $30 to download Germany before we left. This is a gift from the Gods. While Tom works marginally at best in the States, here in Deustchland it’s a native tour guide, with knowledge of every alley, speed limit, and shortcut. Beauty.

10:14am

We head west, out of the city into a light gray morning mist on the A66 autobahn, and I fall in love with Germany’s focused, purposeful, no-bullshit driving style immediately. No cell phoners, no left lane blockers, zero meatheads.

A few miles into the countryside, we hit our first free-speed zone. I coax the Audi up to 180 kph (about 110 miles an hour), and we move freely with the traffic, faster than the trucks and sub-compacts on our right, yet still watching 4-door luxo sedans and sports cars powering by on our left at regular intervals. The Audi’s 0-60 time may be measured in minutes, but once at speed it feels very sure-footed and capable, with no drama.  Outside, lush green countryside flashes by that looks a whole lot like Pennsylvania.

No that’s not the PA Turnpike, it’s the Autobahn at 180 kph.

11:48am

We reach the tiny hamlet of Nurburg, not far from the Belgian border in the Eifel Mountains. It’s a classic German village surrounded by Hansel and Gretel-bait pine forests, with the obligatory castle at the top of the nearest hill, and home to one of the planet’s premier motorsports complexes. Nurburg is absolutely oozing with racing goodness, from the BMW Motorsports training facility in the center of town, to flags and engine sounds and classic racing signage everywhere. Their official year-round population is 159, yet on Sunday’s F1 race day Nurburg will swell to more than 400,000, arriving from all corners of the globe.

Nurburg town center, before I swatted the guy.

They’ve been racing here for nearly eight decades, first on the famed Nordschleife (North Loop), a notoriously difficult, 170+ turn, 12.9 mile course that blasts wildly through the countryside, past farms, forests, fields, and villages. Nordschliefe was nicknamed the “Green Hell” by former world champion Jackie Stewart, and was finally deemed too dangerous and closed to Grand Prix racing after Niki Lauda’s fiery crash in 1976. A few years later, a new 3.2 mile Nurburging circuit was constructed on an adjacent stretch of land, and F1 racing resumed.

These days, the historic long course still sees its share of sports car racing, and has also become THE proving ground for automobile manufacturers the world over, from Ford and Chevrolet, to Porsche, Cadillac, Nissan, and a host of others. You can even take your own street car out and run it at speed, merely by signing up and paying per lap (more on that later).

It’s still misting and cloudy, temp in the low 60s. Yet, in true, travel-mensa fashion, I’m in t-shirt, shorts, and flops. It was 97 degrees when we left DC, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that where we were going was somewhat more north (further north than Montreal, actually). Duh. I’m wondering how many Europeans are playing “Spot the American Idiot” right now.

We enter the supremely shiny, high-tech complex, and find dry seats under an overhang at the end of the front straight. The F1s are just coming out for practice, and it’s our first chance to see the fastest road-racing cars on the planet driven by the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, and a bunch of other mega-celeb athletes that most Americans have never heard of. The sight is amazing, but the sound is even better: a 12,000 rpm wailing whoop that’s both pulverizing and magnificent,  and giving me rampant goosebumps. It takes me a few minutes to regain the ability to form coherent words.

1:15pm

Lunchtime. We hit up one of approximately 130,000 food stands for some bratwursts mit (with) mustard and pommes frites (french fries) mit ketchup. Most of the folks around us are getting THEIR pommes frites mit mayo, Pulp Fiction-style. And instead of using our fingers for the fries, they give us this nifty little plastic fork thing for stabbing. Brats are pretty damned good. Fries are meh. Euro ketchup doesn’t help. Still, you gotta love a country where beer is cheaper than Coca Cola, especially at a sporting event. Since I’m driving, I grab free bottled water from a sponsor display (Well, I think they’re free!)

Instead of paying with cash, we’re forced to use a ‘Ring Card’, which is handed to us while standing in line by a semi-hot German blonde. There’s a bit of a communication barrier, but soon I pick up that it’s basically like a debit card that we use cash or credit card to add points to, in order to buy stuff. She does the whole transaction electronically from a cool little box-thingy in her hand–another example of German efficiency.

3:11pm

Having a blast, but the temp is dropping, and we’re starting to turn blue. So we head back to the car to go track down our hotel. While walking along the main street in town, I’m using my hands to describe something and accidentally pop a guy behind me in the head like a spastic oaf. Now, back in Daytona or Talledega, we’d probably have been instantly throwing elbows, even WITH my quick apology. But in Germany, he simply shrugs it off with a smile, and we shake hands and move along, thus avoiding an international incident.

4:30pm

En route to hotel. Mrs. Bunny spent several weeks making our travel arrangements for us, and as usual, they’re stellar. Same with Tom Tom’s guidance.

We pop off the highway and enter an absolutely mind-blowing stretch of narrow, winding, two-lane Euro roadway. We’re dropping down the mountain to the ancient town of Boppard, and the asphalt, dips, weaves and curls before us, switchback turns and S-curves aplenty. I’m pushing the Audi pretty well,  the all-wheel-drive and 6-speed manual gearbox assisting are great allies (fact: many cars in Germany are still stick shift, mainly because they know how to drive), and we’re all “ooh”ing and “wow”ing and grinning like mental patients. The road has a beautiful, artful appearance, from the brick underpass for the train tracks, to the expansive view of the Rhine River Valley down there that’s at times devoid of guardrails.

The road down the mountain to Boppard was tight and narrow, with great corners. What a rush!

A few minutes later, we touch bottom and enter Boppard. It’s so perfect, it’s almost stereotypical. I’m convinced that Pinocchio has a summer cottage here.

We slip through a maze of tiny streets and even tinier alleys, hang a left, and find ourselves on the Rhine Allee, a line of beautiful old inns, hotels, and biergartens to our left, the Rhine’s black water and strong current there on the right. The sun is finally shining, and there’s people everywhere.

(photo courtesy of Rheinhotel Bellevue)

We find the Hotel Bellevue Rheinhotel, ($174.00 per night US, with breakfast buffet) an elegant grand old lady built in 1887, and now strangely part of the Best Western chain.  They’re expecting us, and before we can even say “David Hasselhoff” we’re checked in and warmly whisked off to a clean, modern 3rd floor semi-suite with three beds, full private bath (not a given over here), massive TV, wet bar, and river-view balcony.

Grampa and I go back out to move the car (no hotel parking, all street. Hate that, but also expected it). Just like most US metropolitan areas these days, the meters are history and we need to instead buy a time ticket to stick in the windshield.

Simple, right? Uh….no.

Oh, the machine is easy enough to locate. But in a country that has so far had English printed as a second language everywhere we look, and here in a popular tourist town, the parking machine is an alien contraption, completely non-intuitive, and with instructions only in German. AND it doesn’t take credit cards. First passerby we flag down is French (just our luck). Pierre tries using hand gestures to explain the machine, then gets annoyed and stomps off when we don’t understand. Next passerby is a woman who simply continues to pass us by. Finally, an older gent sees us struggling, hustles over, and mercifully explains what is a ridiculously complicated process. When I tell him thanks, he laughs heartily and strides off, presumably in search of more good deeds to perform.

The view of the Rhine Allee from our hotel’s front steps.

5:20pm

Checked in, unpacked, showered, dressed, quick call to Mrs. Bunny to let her know we made it… now I have but one thing on my mind: beer.

I’m talking REAL German beer, not the hack-kneed factory seconds they import to the States. See, with the country’s strict beer purity law, the grog you’re served is ultra-fresh and 100% preservative-free, and almost always from a brewery that’s not more than 10-15 kilometers from where you’re ordering it.

We head down to the ornate, wood-paneled lobby bar (it’s empty), and take a seat at the rail. Our bartender is Marco; he’s Italian, but his English is pretty good, and he’s an F1 fan. We ask for his recommendation, and Marco brings us cold Bitburger pilsners from the nearby town of–you guessed it–Bitburg.

Local beer is good beer.

Derek is pleasantly astounded to be legally served a cold draft from a smiling bartender who’s not asking to see ID, (legal drinking age for beer is 16) but it doesn’t stop him from digging in like a sauce king.  It’s soooo good; well-balanced, light, and full of flavor. One soon becomes three.

We’re chatting with Marco about the weekend’s upcoming race, and then he asks what part of England we’re from. We’re stunned at first, but then it makes sense. Boppard sees more than its fair share of British tourists on a regular basis, and since English isn’t his native language, Marco can no more hear the difference between the England and USA accents than the average American can discern Barcelona Spanish from Argentinian Spanish.

Once Marco learns we’re from the US, he starts peppering us with “what’s it like over there?” questions. Grampa and I are giving him the 411 as Derek signals for another beer.

6:35pm

It’s been a loooooong day,  one that actually started 30 hours and more than 3,000 miles ago. We’re hungry, but have neither the remaining energy nor the inclination to hit the streets in search of a restaurant, so we lazily grab a table on the front deck of our hotel, and dine from their menu.

My view from our table, looking across the Rhine.

The Rhine stretches before us across the one way street, with small mountains behind it that are adorned with grapevine terraces on the steep slopes, a reminder that this is Reisling country. There’s some interesting offerings on the menu (just what in the hell IS Weiner Art anyway? Sounds like something by Mapplethorpe). We order schnitzels and soup, and dig in. Derek gets lost en route to the bathroom, due to beers, exhaustion, or both.

Apparently artist Robert Mapplethorpe was guest chef that night.

As we’re waiting on our food, a colorful line of classic sports cars is forming down the street in front of us. MGs, Triumphs, Morgans, Austin Healeys, old Porsches, Renaults, even a Mustang, all with competition numbers on their sides. We head over for a closer look, and find out that they’re in the Berlin to Rome Classic Road Rally, and Boppard is an overnight checkpoint. Nice.

After dinner, exhaustion hits us like a runaway refrigerator truck. I actually doze off while still sitting at our table.

What a day. And tomorrow will be even better.

GB Quickie: our new favorite travel deal website

Yeah, there’s more travel websites vying for our attention these days than there are…um…uh….something else that is actually quite abundantly prolific.

Here at Travel Bunny Worldwide, we’ve logged more than a few hours with travel sites on our laptops. We’ve Orbitzed, we’ve Travelocitited, Priced AND Lined, VRBO’d, and even Expedia-ed once, and the results have been meh.

But the one site that’s been consistently…consistent for our team has been Kayak.com. They pull info from other sites, and gather it all up, nice and neat.

Here’s their “deals” page. If you’re looking for a weekend pass, or still haven’t planned that summer vacation, this could help.

CLICK ME FOR TRAVEL DEALS

Oh, and to that guy there in the 3rd row who’s bitching up a storm about this post: No, genius. This isn’t a paid advertisement. It’s just us sharing our opinion with you good people, which seems to be what our readers like to read. So, get a grip, huh? Go get fired up about Obama’s new shoes, or something.

COMING UP: Photographer Kathy Schenkel  just returned from a local-layback trip to Cozumel, Mexico, and came back deeply tanned and looking at tequila as the anti-christ. Look for her photo collection, coming soon. 

Key West: Bunnies Amongst the Chickens

Route 1 ends, and the fun begins.

When I was a kid in SoCo (that’s Southern Connecticut to you and me, Russ), we lived not too far from this little amusement park in Rye Beach, NY known as Playland.

By today’s mega-park standards, it wasn’t much–kinda like Mini Me to Cedar Point’s Brad Pitt. But when the magic words “Wanna go to Playland?” were heard in our house, it was like Christmas, my birthday, and the last day of school all rolled into one, and I’d go completely outta my mind in anticipation.

Flash forward to adulthood. I get the same rush every time we head down to a tiny chunk of palm-treed rock at the bottom of the contiguous US that’s been a stomping ground for centuries for everyone from pirates to Monopoly Men industrial icons to US presidents.

Key West.

If you’ve never been, you should understand right up front that KW is not for everyone. Here’s a quick quiz to see if it’s what you’re looking for:

  1. Are you wound tighter than a Baptist baseball and have no desire to un-tighten?

  2. Is your regular bedtime no later than 10pm?

  3. Is Jeff Foxworthy your idea of a wild, cutting-edge entertainer?

If you answered YES to one or more of these questions, then…um…yeah, there are other vacation destinations in the Sunshine State that would almost certainly suit you better (lovely Amelia Island comes readily to mind).

But for those looking for something a little different, left-of-center, off the proverbial path, where the unexpected is an everyday norm, your Playland awaits.

So, what are we waiting for? Let’s roll…

HOW WE LIKE TO GET THERE

Arriving at Key West Airport

Not a plethora of direct flights into Key West Airport, but even with a connection along the way it’s worth it. The lower Keys already feel 3rd World anyway, and this tiny airport definitely fits the bill. You walk off the plane onto the hot, sticky tarmac itself, and the message on the side of the terminal reads “Welcome to the Conch Republic”, a nod to their tongue-in-cheek cessation back in 1982.

The whole place is about the size of a Delaware K Mart.

Expect to pay about $25 for the 15 minute cab ride to the downtown/Duval St area. Expensive, but better than renting a car, as parking can really suck in the downtown area.

If you have a little more time, consider flying into Miami or Ft Lauderdale, renting something cool, and following the Florida Turnpike down to Overseas Highway, one of the all-time great scenic drives. On the downside, it’s mostly one lane in each direction, and dang easy to get trapped behind a long line of Winnebagos and trailered fishing boats. But the infinite blue panoramic view, especially from Seven Mile Bridge, is magically delicious.

WHERE WE LIKE TO STAY

There’s several fine hotels all over the island, but we honestly prefer Key West’s stellar B&Bs. Normally, I’m SO not a B&B guy, as I don’t understand the point of doilies, but KW-style can be a universe away from the B&B norm. 

If you can’t relax here, you need Valium.

Our favorite is the Mermaid & the Alligator (729 Truman Avenue). It’s not exactly cheap (around $300 a night in season), but the place is a classic Key West Victorian, circa 1904, with dark, oiled wood, high ceilings, wrap around balconies, warm breeze flow-thru, each room an autonomous theme (with private bath–bonus!). We chose the Audubon Room, with louvered patio doors that open out to the grotto, complete with exotic plants, plunge pool. and the sexy, original statue that inspired the inn’s name. The sun-dried tomato frittata and fresh-baked muffins we had for breakfast were delicious day-starters, for sure. And 4pm is afternoon wine time, complimentary for guests.

Mermaid & the Alligator is close enough to the action that you can walk to the bars and restaurants, yet you’re far enough away that the Last Call diehards aren’t peeing outside your window and singing slurred Buffett tunes at 4am.

One tiny little disclosure: M&A sits across the street from a Catholic church that kicks in the bell chimes about 7:30 am daily, so be aware if you’re a light (or late) sleeper.

Mrs. Bunny says: We prefer to be away from the bars for where we stay, sexy and fun are just a bunny skip away!

HOW WE LIKE TO GET AROUND

Like I said, car parking can be an expensive and time-sucking pain in the coconuts on and around Duval St. So instead, we rent scooters, which you can park just about anywhere, for free (just remember where you’ve parked, as they’re everywhere down there, and they all look the same! We’ve seen several hungover scooter-hunters wandering the streets the morning after).

Some rental companies will deliver them right to your door, and pick them up again when you’re done, at no extra charge. And they like to haggle too. I ended up getting 2 scooters for 3 days for $50 total, delivered, after a little wrangling. Talk to the front desk or concierge for a recommendation.

Mr. Bunny, riding his chopper through Old Town.

Scooters are super-easy to ride. Even Mrs. Bunny went from “yikes!” to “yahoo!” in about an hour. They’re automatic (so no gear shifting), they’re key start, and they have lockable storage under the seat. Top speed is roughly 40mph, but it takes about four days to hit it.

Mrs. Bunny says: Holy crap! I have never ridden a motorized bike, and omg it was scary at first. But after running around on some quiet side streets, I quickly got the hang of it. Mrs. Bunny advises to not drink and scooter. If going out for the evening, please walk. It’s a softer landing.

Other free-parking vehicle options: bicycles, electric golf cart-looking things.

FOOD

Key West is a foodie playground, and as always, we go local and avoid the chains. As you can probably guess, there’s plenty of fresh local fish like grouper, tuna, mahi mahi, ballyhoo, conch, shrimp, stone crabs (beware MD Steamed Blue Crab lovers: Stones are boiled and served chilled, no spice, w/mustard sauce for dipping. They’ve got a strange aftertaste that neither of us cared for), plus great steaks, French, Cuban, Spanish, Italian, even good bar food. Here’s a sampling of our favorites:

1. B.O.’s Fish Wagon (801 Caroline St)

Grilled Grouper sandwiches, fresh-cut fries, ice-cold beer….

Not gonna lie to ya; B.O’s is more of an open air shack than a restaurant, but that’s part of the charm. Fresh grouper and mahi mahi sandwiches (grilled or fried), fresh-cut fries, cold beers, and live blues and jazz music make the Shack a fantastic option for lunch or between pub snack. Figger about $10-$15 to fill your tank.

Mrs. Bunny says: Great place for a hangover, ’nuff said!

2. El Sibonay (900 Catherine Ave)

El Sibonay is on over on the quiet side of the island, and is, hands-down, the best Cuban food we’ve ever experienced. Even my Havana-born father was raving about their marinated pork, fried plantains, and cafe con leche.

This place ain’t first-date fancy. It’s lit up like a cafeteria, you’ll almost certainly have to wait (outside) for a table, and they don’t even bother taking your name (you get a number when you get there). But not only is it fantastic food, the prices are unbelievable (that’s GOOD unbelievable!).

Mrs. Bunny says: Dinner was two orders of marinated pork with sides, black bean soup, a pitcher of homemade sangria, and two flans for dessert = $42 WITH TIP! Furthermore, we could have shared an entree as the portions were HUGE! Still have cravings for their food. Awesome.

A&B Lobster House (700 Front St)

Touristy, yet amazing, A&B is a Key West institution. This is a world class lobster house, with an expansive view of the harbor. The top floor is fancy-schmancy gourmet, and expensive (about $75 a head for dinner + drinks), with both fresh Maine and local spiny lobster on the menu.

Downstairs, Alonzo’s is more lax, and offered a Happy Hour (even on Saturday) that featured cheap drinks and 2-for-1 seafood apps.

(“Only in Key West” side note: while deciding what we wanted to eat at Alonzo’s after several hours of Duval Crawling, I felt something poking me in the back. I turned, and this fairly hammered little woman at the next table says “ya gotta try thish here smoked bluefishhhh. F*cking amazing!” and then proceeds to slide the plate onto our table. So we dug in. The smoked fish was damn good, and her much-saner boyfriend was a cab owner who ended up taking us back to the airport a few days later for only $12.)

AVOID: Mangia Mangia (900 Southard St)    

The only thing worse than their mediocre pasta dishes is their painstaking attention to rude and disinterested service. Picture Olive Garden with far less flavor and staffed by NYC bus drivers.

Mrs. Bunny says: While I will admit to being a bit ‘under the weather’ for this dining experience, I did wake up the next day remembering a certain level of rudeness permeating my buzz!! No fun!

DRINKS & NIGHTLIFE

Now we’re getting to the heartbeat of Key West. They make alcohol an art form down there, with diversity, creativity, and open-arms attitude. Sure, you don’t HAVE to drink while you’re there, but that’d be like going to church and avoiding all the religion parts.

They’re pretty lax about drinking down there, provided that you’re not acting like a raging asshole. For example, there’s this little bar on the Duval St sidewalk that’s basically like a newsstand. No idea what it’s called, but you can’t miss it. You can grab a beer or cocktail there, and just head on down the street with it, no worries. And if you’re in one bar, and suddenly decide to roll to the next place, you just do it, drink in hand. Just be sure to ask for a to-go cup.

And look: KW has more bars than Alaska has ice cubes. It’s impossible to hit them all, unless you live there, and you’re independently wealthy and constantly thirsty. We’ve only scratched the surface ourselves.

Irish Kevin’s (211 Duval St)

Mrs. Bunny enjoys a Harp while Jeff Harris performs.

I know it says “nightlife” at the top of this section, but Irish Kevin’s also offers…uh…MORNINGlife, as beers and live acoustic music can start as early as 10am every day of the week during season. Kevin’s is 100% touristy, but that’s cool because it’s a total trip. You may be coaxed by the onstage performer to kiss your significant other when you walk in (cheers will ensue), you may be part of the “running of bulls” where a group of bearded patrons with viking helmets chases a female customer down the street, and you might be heckled when you leave for not sticking around.

Mrs. Bunny says: As my friends/family will confirm. Irish Kevin’s is always the first place I lose the ability to spell while texting about the great time I’m having. 

Sloppy Joe’s (201 Duval St)

Basically right next door to Irish Kevin’s, Sloppy’s may be the best-known watering hole on the planet, made famous by Papa Ernest Hemingway (albeit at their original location, about a block and a half away). Sloppy’s sits on a corner, with open entry all the way around that brings in the breeze, street sounds, and thirsties. Like Kevin’s, it’s always a party.

You gotta do Sloppy’s at least once. Grab a drink, call your friends, and make them jealous as hell as you wave to them at the webcam out on their Duval side. And if you get lucky, maybe you’ll catch the great Pat Dailey performing on Sloppy’s stage. Pat is another KW institution, in his mid-60s, and still a wildman.

Bull & Whistle (224 Duval St) 

Yeah, the Bull is a solid go-to, with live rock bands day and night in season, and there’s decent pool tables up on their second floor. But what REALLY makes this place like no other is what’s on their THIRD floor rooftop.

It’s the Garden Of Eden, clothing optional bar.

That tropical area on the roof? That’s the Garden of Eden, a clothing-optional bar.

You just don’t see these kinds of things in places like Davenport, Iowa, do ya. Like Sloppy’s, it’s worth checking out at least once. Yes, you will probably see naked people (unless it’s c-c-c-COLD out!), no, you don’t have to disrobe if you don’t want to. No, it’s not an orgy (but we HAVE witnessed some interesting dance floor escapades!). Yes, it’s one hell of a good time.

Mrs. Bunny says: Ladies, it’s not as bad as you think. Sure, there’s the occasional fat, bald, naked guy in view. But for the most part it’s very laid-back and relaxed, with less rampant testosterone than you might think. 

Honorable Mentions:

1. La Te Da (1125 Duval St)                                                                                                    

Cool little outdoor bar with live jazz music + cabaret  that has both hetero and homosexual clientele. Great option if you want something a bit more upscale and less turbocharged than down on the louder end of Duval. Last time we were there, this cool couple we met from Pittsburgh was having so much fun on the dance floor, they fell down the stairs and right out the front door, with a potted plant landing on top of them for a great cartoon ending! No injuries, so it was funny.

2. Schooner’s Wharf (202 William St)                                                                           

Whenever I hear the term “Salty Dog”, I immediately think of Schooner’s. Old-school Key West joint, over on the waterfront. Apparently this was Jimmy Buffett’s hangout back in the early 70s, when he was just another unknown singer/songwriter.

OTHER COOL THINGS

So, besides drinking, eating, and looking at naked people, KW does have some other options for your attention.

1. Ernest Hemingway House (907 Whitehead St)                                               

Hemingway’s Key West house is right off the chain.

Sure, as I writer I geeked out when I got to check out Papa’s Key West home, but it’s a good time for most adults (kids would likely be bored, but why are you bringing kids to Key West in the first place?). The house is magnificent, with tons of photos and memorabilia, a swimming pool that cost several times more than the average annual household income when it was built, the latest generation of Hemingway’s family of six-toed cats running around, and his writing loft in the outbuilding, complete with the original typewriter.

2. Mallory Square (1 Whitehead St)          

Come for the world-class sunsets, stay for the world-class street performers. The Square gets packed as the day goes on, so arrive early for a prime spot along the rail, grab a snack, and wait for Mother Nature to break out the paint brush.

Juggling unicyclists, fire eaters, and more do their thing in Mallory Square.

3. Butterfly Conservatory (1316 Duval St)    

Exactly what you think it is, you’re surrounded by hundreds of technicolor moths as you tour the conservatory. Guys, yeah, I know, it sounds about as exciting as shopping for curtains, but it honestly was pretty cool.

4.  Fort Zachary Taylor State Park  (601 Howard England Way)

Key West’s most popular beach, but that’s not saying much. The sand part is just fine, lush and tropical, with the famous “mileage” sign, and a decent snack bar. But like most beaches in the keys, there’s a ton of rock and coral under the water’s surface. Wear water shoes, flip flops, something. Or just chill under the palm trees, because the view is unparalleled.

Zach Taylor’s mileage signpost is a photo op fave.

4. Southernmost Marker (201 Front St)

Another iconic photo op, this buoy typically has a line of folks waiting to snap a pic.  Took us about 10 minutes, chatting with a Dutch couple behind us, who ended up serving as our photographer.

Mr. & Mrs. Bunny, mugging for camera. Photo Credit: Some Dutch couple

5. Key West Cemetery (701 Passover Lane)

Like everything else down there, this cemetery isn’t your normal breed. Dating back to the 1840s, the graveyard has sections for Cuban Freedom Fighters from the Spanish American War, Confederate Navymen, and the Battleship Maine, plus some individual stones with memorable epitaphs (one woman’s reads “See? I told you I was sick.”)

BE AWARE OF…

Here’s some other info that might come in handy.

1. Chickens roam free

Key West has also become a top vacation destination for poultry.

These wandering KFC menu items date all the way back to the 19th century, when Key West was a fairly lawless fishing and sailing village. Cockfighting was a popular sport back then, mainly because ice dancing hadn’t been invented yet. When civic leaders tried to bring a little order to the island, they outlawed the feather-based brawls, so their owners either ate their warriors, or set them free. Waking up to ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ is completely normal down there.

2. Beach swimming isn’t great–Like I said, there’s rocks and coral aplenty as soon as you step into the sea, all through the Keys. If you’re jonesing for a true swim, your best bet is to head north up to Bahia Honda State Park, about 20 minutes north of Key West. Try their north side (to the left) as you enter. This is the best stretch of beach we’ve found, south of Miami. And, if you see something that looks kinda like a plastic, semi-inflated shopping bag floating on the top of the waves, don’t turn into Captain Cleanup and swim out for it. Chances are it’s a Portuguese Man o War, a fairly deadly type of jellyfish that, like an iceberg, is MUCH bigger under the water than what it looks like above it.

3. Strip Clubs–If you like to include adult entertainment in your vacation plans, KW has good (and some very bad) options.

The Good: Red Garter (208 Duval St) Across the street from Irish Kevin’s sits this gem of a gentlemen’s club. It’s clean, it’s not that expensive, and most importantly, the girls are pretty hot. Many (from what I’ve heard!) are from eastern Europe, and have the sexy accent to go with the sexy view. And ladies, we’ve found, no we’ve HEARD that it’s a perfectly fine and acceptable place for you to visit, with your man or on your own.

The Bad: Bare Assets (1029 Truman Ave) It’s no secret that strip clubs use sex to separate men from money. The good ones do it deftly and subtly. Bare Assets tries to do it with a sledgehammer. I must’ve had my idiot look on that night, because the bartender tried to give me the wrong change three separate times (really dude?), and several friendly ladies who stopped by to say hello between stage sessions tried to distract me so they could attempt to swipe bills from the tip stack under my beer bottle. Fail.

 Summary

It’s easy to fall in love with Key West’s beauty, charm, and “why worry?” attitude. And it’s consistent. No matter what’s going on in the world, or how much you’ve changed since your last visit, returning there still feels as comfortable and natural as a great old pair of jeans.

Lunch and margaritas at Fogarty’s, about an hour after we landed.

And it doesn’t take long to get into the Key West flow, once you arrive. Be prepared: you’ll likely be engaged in friendly conversation with complete strangers, you’ll probably try a food or drink you’ve never had before, you’ll almost certainly be in the general vicinity of drunk people, and you may decide to get a tattoo. But all that is the easy part.

The toughest thing to do is leave.

Got a Key West story or tip to share? Lay it on us. 

Have a thing for Coconut-Infused Vodka & the Caribbean? We’ve got the contest for you.

From the GB “Contests We’re Personally Entering” dept:

SKYY is promoting their new coconut-infused vodka with one cool contest. Just “like” their Facebook page and (provided you’ve already celebrated your 21st birthday) you can enter to win a 4-day 3-night getaway for you and a pal to the incredible Grace Bay Beach in Turks & Caicos. Grace Bay is absolutely stunning, with white, powder-soft sand, and the most obscenely turquoise water we’ve ever seen anywhere. It’s one of those cool “other” Caribbean spots that’s somehow seemed to escape the gaze of the masses (so far), and thank God. Don’t take our word for it–even Conde Nast called it one of their top10 favorite beaches on the planet.

Grace Bay beach, Turks & Caicos

And the coconut-infused (buzzword alert!) vodka is pretty good, too. We tried it on the rocks, mixed with a splash of fresh (not canned) pineapple juice, and a lemon wedge, and yeah….we could see ourselves becoming close friends with it during the warm season.

SKYY made a big point of saying that they’re using natural coconut, maybe as opposed to coconut produced in a Bristol Myers Squibb laboratory. It’s still sweet, but not nearly as dentally-destructive as, say, Parrott Bay’s flavored rums.

Here’s the link: ENTER HERE.

Good luck. If you win, send us pics and stories. And be sure to read all the rules and regs carefully before you enter (our legal dept made us say that).

Didja see this? Beach swimmers beware of sexually aggressive octopuses!

Bottlenose dolphin falls under attack by ‘naughty octopus’

By: Pete Thomas, GrindTV.com

For the dolphin it seems to have been a painful lesson learned, and for the octopus, a joy ride it will not soon forget….

A scientist who studies dolphins off western Greece last week captured an incredible sequence of images — perhaps the first of their kind — showing a leaping bottlenose dolphin with a large octopus clinging to its belly.

“I have never seen anything like this,” Joan Gonzalvo of the Ionian Dolphin Project told New Scientist. “My hypothesis is that the dolphin might have attacked – tried to prey on the octopus – and somehow to avoid it the octopus just attached to the dolphin’s belly.”

Makes sense, considering that whales are known to breach in order to shake free of parasites.

Gonzalvo posted a short story about the peculiar encounter on the Dolphin Project blog, under the headline, “Naughty octopus,” because of the sensitive region on which the crafty cephalopod latched onto. 

It was one of four dolphins in a pod swimming off the island of Kalamos in the Ionian Sea. “Right on the spot we were not sure about what exactly was hanging from the dolphin’s belly,” Gonzalvo wrote. “What was our surprise when we examined the photos and discovered thatnaughty octopus!”

The dolphin was able to shake the octopus loose and resume normal swimming behavior with the pod, perhaps having learned to be more careful the next time it decides to dine on a creature that is considered to be highly intelligent, and with so many sticky arms at its disposal.

— Images are courtesy of the Ionian Dolphin Project.