Commercial Airline Hell

Anyone else ready for some serious commercial airline reform? Flying is feeling more and more like kindergarten these days:

  • Line up!
  • Be quiet!
  • Walk single file!
  • Sit down!
  • Put away your (electronic) toys!
  • Pay attention! I’m giving my lesson on how your seat belt operates!
  • Snack time!

Our recent jaunt to Key West via American Airlines was a round-trip dignity mugging.

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“We’re American Airlines..Failing’s what we do best.”

For starters, it’d be great if the nice big airplane company could possibly hire customer service personnel who don’t positively hate their jobs/their life/anyone not wearing an American Airlines uni. Seriously, I’ve seen more enthusiasm in a cemetery. I’m not saying they were disparaging, but they looked at us like Hillary Clinton would regard a used condom stuck to the bottom of her shoe.

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“Why, it’s not even RIBBED! This can’t be one of Bill’s.”

First of all, the whole boarding process is ridiculous. Since they only allow one way on and off the plane, why not board from back to front, by row? You don’t fill the TOP HALF of the glass first, do you? For one, it’s easier to get your personal allowance of crap to your seat if you don’t have to navigate the elbows, knees, and asses of the folks already at their seats in the front and middle, and it saves the front-dwellers and middlers from getting bashed by Samsonites and smacked by giant plastic bags seemingly full of bricks and stones that so many people travel with these days. Nope. Instead, the First-Classers and proud holders of American Airlines Preferred MasterVisa Super Cards get on first. I’m convinced this is so that First Class passengers can enjoy sitting there, smugly superior in their starched Polo shits, poking disdainful fun as the great unwashed parade themselves back to steerage. (But there are methods of retaliation. My friend Todd loves Cuban food, and he merrily retains the related gas before he flies, only to fart without mercy while passing through the first class cabin. If you ever travel with Todd, make sure you get on the plane BEFORE him. And if the gas masks do deploy, remember to first secure your own before helping others.)

If my first sensible boarding reform plan doesn’t work, then why not attach jetways to both ends of the plane? There’s two doors, Mr. Hawking–use them. Easy on, easy off, for everyone. Airports have more jetways than they know what to do with. I think they actually breed them when no one is looking. Rows 1-20, to the left, 21-40 to the right, thank you ma’am. And it makes departing the plane that much easier, too. Let’s face it: if you’ve ever been in the back of a crowded 767 that’s just landed late and you know you’re going to have to run like Forrest Gump to make your connection, seeing the massive, slow-moving blot of bodies blocking your only way out is enough to make you wish for an Acme Insta-Vapor Death Ray Gun.

Every airline we’ve used has some zany way of separating passengers at boarding time. Southwest has their letter grade A, B, Cs that always makes me wish I’d studied more. American boards by Zones, 1 through 5. Zone 1 seems to always be reserved for people who are desperately trying to look busy and important. We are neither, hence we’ve never even sniffed the 1 Zone. In fact, we checked in a full 24 hours before our flight (as responsible travelers do), and were still relegated to Zone 5. While waiting to board, the woman at the desk announced that “anyone who does not have a zone listed on their boarding pass may board with Zone 4”).

Zone FOUR??? Exactly how far down the passenger food chain are we Fivers when we’re forced to board AFTER the people who didn’t even bother to have a zone assigned to them??? Do we get an actual seat, or are they tying us to the landing gear?

Then there’s the two boarding lanes at the gate. I love this. There’s one lane for General Boarding. It’s maybe 20 feet long, and seems to be doing its assigned job just fine. But right next to it is a separate special lane reserved for the First Class and Elite Master Express Credit Grand Poobah whatevers. It too, is about 20 feet long, and to my uncouth eye looks an awful lot like the one next to it. Actually, they’re identical, and separated only by a thin plastic belt attached to a couple of snazzy, burnished metal, thin plastic belt-holder poles. Is this really the best use of space? Does the preferred lane feature lilac-scented air as you navigate its majestic 20 feet of carpet? Are there massaging foot warmers under the flooring?

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“Oh,dahling, look at those poor slovenly creatures, forced to endure such an inadequate boarding lane. We simply MUST have a benefit on their behalf.”

On the return flight, we’re right back in plucky Zone 5 again, boarding behind mannequin parts and potted plants. As we approach the departure gate, Ms. Someone-Peed-In-My-Shoe-This-Morning informs Mrs Bunny and me that we “may” need to check our carry-ons as the flight is full, and space is limited, and of course, we’re careless enough to have allowed ourselves to be placed in Boarding Zone 5.

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Say wha?

The rules of what items passengers can bring aboard are stated approximately every 1.4 seconds in the terminal. We now know them better than we know our own pants size: one (1) carry-on suitcase that must fit in the overhead compartment, and one (1) personal item that must be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you. There are a set number of seats onboard, and a specific size limit for each carry-on. So how exactly do you run out of space??? Are the Flight Attendants smuggling massive Tupperware containers to 3rd world countries?

She didn’t elaborate, so I grumbled across he tarmac with our bags, expecting to be surrounded at gunpoint by the luggage police at any moment.

As we boarded the plane, I spied vast empty space in several of the First Class area’s overhead compartments, and quickly hoisted our carry-ons up and in. About then, the flight attendant huffed “sir, these are reserved for our First Class passengers” as if I’m sitting on their laps and going through their pockets. I looked around and all the FC seats were full. No other busy+important passengers were joining us on that flight. Yet there was still enough room even after our bags went in for Warren Sapp to climb up there for a long nap. With a yak.

Now, everything behind us on the plane looked as overstuffed as the Beverly Hillbillies’ cross country travel truck. So I turned back, and gave her “the look”, which basically conveyed the following: “Now see here madam, we’re already quite dismayed at the prospect of having to leave lovely Key West and head home to a frigid, snow-smacked Mid-Atlantic. I do appreciate the gracious favor of allowing us to purchase tickets on your airline, but now you dare chide me about placing our bags in an available, designated carry-on bag compartment that STILL has sufficient room available to fit the entire cast of Les Miserables AND a mid-sized SUV? Now, either change your tune, or bring me a glass with some rum in it so that we might continue this conversation properly.”

She relented. And I still wanted my rum.

But next time, we’re giving serious consideration to selling off a few lesser-used body parts and using the proceeds to buy into one of those private jet time shares. Maybe we can look busy and important to each other?

“Westbound & Down” Preview

Our world is c-c-c-cold.

It’s downright ludicrous. As I write this, just after 2pm on Sunday March 3rd, it’s currently 61 degrees in Miami, 63 in Key West, 54 in Longboat (eesh!), and even just 64 in Havana, Cuba. Here in the Mid-Atlantic it’s a balmy 39 with snow flurries, and it’s sadly obvious that we can’t simply motor south to get warm.

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A tad chilly here.

So, this week, we’re headed to seek the heat, since it’s refusing to come to us. Destination: the left coast.

1st up: Palm Springs for the BNP Paribas Open Tennis Championships at Indian Wells, Joshua Tree National Park, and Death Valley (hey, we’re serious about our heat!).

The World's Best make an annual trip to the California desert every March.

The World’s Best make an annual trip to the California desert every March.

Then down to bounce around LA and the Pacific, with a special visit to the Conan O’Brien Show.

We’ll show you how to experience the best of SoCal without taking a 2nd mortgage to do it.

And we’ll be fantastically, gloriously waaaaaaaarrrrrm again, at the same time our Mid-Atlantic brethren are (possibly) getting pounded by March snow. Sorry, folks.

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Welcome to Hollywoo’. Wass yo Dream?

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.