Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Sail away with me, to another world..."

"News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress - all the rest is advertising."

So, sagely, said Lord Northcliffe, and this is indeed the noblest of journalistic sentiments, a phrase that should ring in the ears, throb through the marrow and tingle through the fingers of any self-respecting journalist.

Sometimes, though, even the most high-minded will enjoy the benefit of an exaggerated expenses claim, a paid-for meal (or, better, bar tab), or the lucky dip of the freebie.

I remember well my first freebie: a box of Jane Asher cake mix, that sat at the back of my cupboard for months before I did the decent thing and handed it over to my mum.

Since then, I must confess to reading books, listening to CDs and - during one strange phase of unsolicited baskets - munching on my favourite Pink Lady apples and, er, red grapes. Oh, and the free football tickets have been muchly appreciated too, though more so for the likes of the World Cup final than an epic Coca-Cola Championship clash between Leicester and Hull.

Travel journalists, though, surely have the most easeful of occupations - I think it's safe to Judith Chalmers is a stranger to the Samaritans. Exhibit A, I offer the excellent and enviable Shandypockets pages, put together by one of those globe-gallivanting hacks we all wish we could/should have been.

In fact, we met on my one previous, dim-distant-past holiday blag, one that I am actually happy to accept as my one and only, such was the pinch-myself pleasure of the whole experience.

Of course, the obligatory plugs may chip away at what little credibility I might have had, but I tried to keep the plugs down to an appropriate minimum - yet also there where deserved. But, well, that's the game, innit...

It was a while ago now, but I was reminded to dig it out after pondering what to read next, after finally finishing "Jane Eyre" and swiftly dashing through "Monsignor Quixote" by Grahame Greene. On a similar Spanish tip (the Greene, that is, not the Currer Bell), I should really now get round to reading "Death In The Afternoon". After all...

I’ve always liked Islands In The Stream.
No, not the Ernest Hemingway novel, but the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers duet.
Yet it was the book I tipped off the shelves in preparation for a week in the Florida Keys, the sinuous strip of more than 800 islands separating mainland US from Cuba.
This tropical ribbon running through the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico promotes itself as Paradise, but is also classic Hemingway territory, a land of adventure and daring.
Think of Harry Morgan, the Key West maverick of Hemingway’s To Have And Have Not, sacrificing his morals, his arms and finally his life to run guns, liquor and wantaway Cubans across the waters.
Or Santiago, the decrepit hero of The Old Man And The Sea, battling the raging waters in his epic – and ultimately, excruciatingly vain – efforts to land the perfect marlin.
Or grizzled old “Papa” Hemingway himself, a-huntin’ and a-fishin’ and a-boozin’ and a-brawlin’ across the Keys and his favourite Key West haunts such as Sloppy Joe’s sloppy bar.
Or, of course, a dilettante English journalist like myself, visiting to enjoy a few massages, down a few cocktails and generally soak up the sun.
The macho Hemingway would no doubt disapprove of the luxurious spa resorts springing up across the Keys, nevertheless entirely suited to the location’s sun-drenched, laidback ambience.
Fror a start, a facial would surely do little for his ruddy, hardened complexion beneath those brutish bristles.
Yet after pitching up at the palatial Hawks Cay resort, with its immaculate villas, rich buffets and live dolphin show, it would have been rude not to sample the new spa centre of which they seem so proud.
Expecting myself to immediately switch off and shut down completely, hypnotically chanting “Om”, I assumed I was doing something wrong during the first facial.
Random, petty concerns kept popping into my still-buzzing brain: how will Spurs do this season, should I buy the latest White Stripes album, if we’re evolved from monkeys then why are there still monkeys...?
But soon I was sinking, pleasantly savouring the mysterious-yet-soothing oils, the warm blasts of air brushing my skin, the taped piano trilling gently in the background.
Yes, I could certainly get used to this type of treatment.
I finally floated out of the treatment room feeling like a new woman – I mean, man. I even tried to convince myself I was making a defiant statement of macho resistance by, er, not shaving.
But resistance was inevitably futile when a little bit of pampering could feel this great – Hemingway can just go fish.
A 50-minute Swedish massage the following day was even sweeter, leaving me a blissed-out hollow of a functioning man for the remains of the day.
The people of the Keys are clearly thrilled with their flourishing spa centres.
We were treated to a tour of the recently-built facility at Cheeca, the longer-established rival to Hawks Cay and favoured retreat of both George Bushes and family.
Sadly we were not there to samples the massage facilities, but made up for it by scoffing the cuisine – menu headed by the top local delicacy, Key Lime Pie, a sweet, light cheesecake.
The Florida Keys are not merely rich in terms of the landowners and well-heeled visitors (ourselves, of course, excepted).
The area’s wildlife is a source of consistent wonder. During a powerboat tour, we spied a lone dolphin frolicking in the shallows, while flutters of exotic birds circled above busy schools of tarpon and marlin below.
For the time being, at least, the many whales, sharks, manatees and turtles to be found in the depths were keeping their heads down.
Our guide explained the importance of the mangrove islands and the sea grass sustaining so much of the surrounding wildlife.
Damaging these plants can incur hefty fines for careless sailors, rising into millions of dollars. We kept a cautious, respectful distance.
An alternative insight into the Key creatures was found at Richie Moretti’s Turtle Hospital in Marathon.
If that name conjures up images of cartoon ninja critters sporting slings, bandages and plasters to accessorise their multi-coloured bandanas (well, it did for me), then the reality is a little more harrowing.
Here, 25-stone turtles, covered in vast tumours or showing off mutilated limbs, waded painfully in their shallow basins.
Richie bought the next-door motel in 1981, when this turtle hospital building was then a lap-dancing club called Fanny’s.
He funds the hospital entirely through the motel’s $200,000-a-year proceeds – a good example of Keysian economics, you might say. Or, indeed, might not.
As a committed veggie, I was not in a position to judge the overflowing, fresh fish platters thrust our way at every restaurant, including the lively Island Tiki Bar in Marathon or the Islamorada Fish Company in, well, Islamorada.
I was assured, though, of their excellence – and the portions would challenge even the hungriest Hemingway.
Probably the best meal we enjoyed, though, for both supplies and setting, was on the charmingly-named Pretty Joe Rock Island, a tiny seabound enclave owned by the Banana Bay Resort.
This hideaway is popular with honeymooning couples, and little wonder, with its luxury en-suite bathrooms, healthily-stocked kitchen and picturesque gardens.
After a tranquil two hours, within sight of the shore yet feeling care-lessly adrift from the world, we had to be dragged away.
Key West called – the southern tip of the US but where the Keys start to come to noisier life.
If I was feeling especially, generously patriotic, I’d describe it as like Brighton, only sunnier and hotter.
This is a bustling resort that prides itself on being a trendy, liberal party town – oh, and it rivals San Francisco for campness.
Certainly the delightful old colonial homes are more densely packed than in the Upper Keys, and the strong Cuban townships dating from the cigar factories’ 19th century heyday are full of character.
Visit El Masa de Pepe for sumptuous Cuban cuisine and an enthralling exhibition, sure to leave you whistling Guantanamera for days to come.
Our accommodation, the heritage-listed, late 19th-century Cypress House hotel, was an oasis of bohemian, classy calm.
The legendary main drag, seven-mile-long Duval Street, summons any self-respecting barcrawler – and again, for research purposes, I felt compelled to do my duty.
Anyone failing to realise Sloppy Joe’s was Hemingway’s favourite hang-out either has their eyes closed to the all-surrounding merchandise – or has knocked back one too many Mojitos.
Unsurprisingly, though, Key West’s finest attraction is nature itself.
Every evening at 6.30pm – yes, every evening – the sunset is celebrated with an exuberant festival on the shore.
Musicians, jugglers, trapeze artists, wizened old men pushing cats and dogs through bizarre hoops – all come out to play and greet the setting sun as it dips graciously, captivatingly into the sea behind Sunset Island.
This patch of land was originally known as Tank Island, but as the swanky condiminiums (condiminia?) multiplied, investors understandably opted for a more romantic-sounding name.
I watched the sun go down to the soundtrack of Mustapha, an ancient Jamaican busker plucking out simple, affecting versions of What A Wonderful World and Island In The Sun on his acoustic guitar.
The next evening we took an even better look, boarding Sebago’s Sunset Cruise, a two-hour voyage of simply sitting back, sipping champagne and watching the sunset at closer quarters.
A little sore-headed after such heady sights (and a few heady drinks), another massage – this time at the Pier House Resort and Caribbean Spa – couldn’t do any harm.
Nor could a leisurely tour of Key West’s quirkier tourist attractions, including the new-ish Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.
Careful where you tread, though, when exploring a tropical greenhouse habitat home to 1,200 vivid little winged wonders.
Of course, there is also Hemingway House, complete with smug ancestors of his beloved cats – and, not much farther on, a marker of the United States’ southernmost point.
In fact, you can also spot the southernmost house, the southernmost barber’s, the southernmost grocery store, the southernmost gallery, the southernmost horse being flogged...
I also enjoyed the Key West Shipwreck Museum, not just for the hammy antics of the historically-dressed tour guides, but also for the best aerial view of Key West – for those prepared to clamber the rigging, anyway.
The Old Town Trolley Tour is also essential, even if only to get your bearings and cherry-pick where to explore further.
Just be warned, though – our banter-loving guide’s best joke was: “Sorry about the bumps ahead in the next road. Though it’s not my fault, just as it’s not your fault. It’s the asphalt.”
(I laughed.)
Our final full day was taken up by something a little different, a trip to the newly-opened Walkabout Retreats venture, back towards Marathon.
The retreat is devoted to helping guests manage stress better, with “treatments” ranging from yoga, bike rides and kayaking to thick fruit smoothies.
Perhaps equally beneficial would be a meal at the ultra-stylish Hot Tin Roof restaurant – inspired by another noted Key West resident, Tennessee Williams, who perhaps could have been happier with his lot, all things considered.
Tucking into rich food and wine while overlooking the peaceful harbour was the perfect way to see out the Key West experience – though the following day’s 45-minute flight from Key West to Miami in a low-flying mini-jet had its photo-op merits, too.
A busy week, then – and yet a ridiculously-relaxed and relaxing one, at the same time.
It was no surprise to hear almost every Key West resident explain how they had moved there for good after visiting once on holiday.
That sounded perfectly reasonable to me – if not quite personally realistic.
Alternatively, of course, there are other Hemingway-inspired adventures to try.
Bull-fighting in Spain, after Death In The Afternoon?
Braving The Snows Of Kilimanjiro?
Hmm, maybe not for me just now, thanks.
After this, they sound a little too stressful.


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Aidan said...

Thank you, come again.
Actually, don't.