Family Getaway: Key West

asiseeit_fayette_headshotFor decades Key West, Florida has been seen as the ultimate adult getaway. From Bike week, the Hemingway Festival, and FantasyFest, Key West has created an aura of over-indulgence and the lowering of one’s inhibitions. And while to many that may truly be the case, my annual visits over the past ten years have found a let’s say, ‘Kinder and gentler Key West’. I have traveled there with my wife many times as a couples’ retreat, but we’ve also included the entire family as well on occasion. From seemingly limitless eating choices to non-stop water fun, the Conch Republic is a fabulous place to plan your next family getaway.

My home away from home is always the Hyatt Sunset Harbor located on the Gulf end of Duval Street. This resort is located just next to Mallory Square and its boardwalk. EveningsIMG_4003 produce breathtaking sunsets, while mornings awake to cruse ships making Key West their next port of call. The rooms at Sunset Harbor range from studios to 2-bedroom suites. All accommodations are spacious, and always up to Hyatt expectations. Their pool and hot tub are the centerpiece of many daily poolside activities.

If a resort setting isn’t your family’s style, Key West is packed with Bed & Breakfast inns, as well as VRBOs (vacation rentals by owner). Depending on your budget, your stay can be in an entire house or the sharing of one with another couple or family. Many of these rentals will even allow for the family pet to come along as well, but always make sure you check that out with management, and get it in writing, prior to arrival.

For those that have always dreamed of living on the water, there are many motor yachts and houseboats that are able to be rented out by the week or month. Some come with a complete crew, while others allow you and your family to sail solo.

IMG_4059When it comes to the ultimate in getting away from it all, there is no better place to stay in Key West than on a private island known as Sunset Key. Approximately three-quarters of the island located just to the west of Mallory Square consists of private homes, but the remaining quarter of the island has 1-bedroom to 3-bedroom cottages, along with pool facilities and a private beach. My annual visit to the island’s exceptional restaurant, Latitudes, lets me enjoy the surroundings if only for a couple hours, and keeps me dreaming for yet another year.

Getting around Key West is extremely easy. No car necessary! While my family usually walks from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean (about 14 blocks on Duval), bicycle and motor cart rentals are also available on a daily to weekly basis. Taxis are readily available, as well as pedicabs too. My taxi driver (I like to say that…) is saved in my contacts for a quick call when I arrive at the airport, and when my vacation is over. When staying in the historic section of the island known as Old Key West that’s about the only time I ever need a cab. While Key West is very pedestrian-friendly and speed limit concerns are rarely an issue, its always important to still be alert so your stay isn’t cut short by an incident.

Water fun on Key West can be non-stop. From ocean fishing to sunset dinner cruises, and jet skiing to snorkeling, the activities on the water are so numerous that you may not have a enough time toIMG_4031 take them all in on one stay. While I have enjoyed several excursions with the Fury and Sebago companies, my most enjoyable have been with Danger Charters. While the larger companies have you aboard with 40-50 others, the Danger Charters schooner only holds about twenty. My most recent adventure with ‘Danger’ started around 9:30 in the morning. Sailing out about five miles to the Strait of Florida we were able to snorkel for about 90 minutes on one of the world’s greatest reefs. One of the three crew on board Danger Charters actually became our snorkeling guide as she showed us the places to view amazing fish and underwater creatures. Following a fresh fruit and water break, two of the crew split the group and took us on a fabulous kayak journey around the Key West National Nature Preserve. This uninhabited island plays home to incredible wildlife as well as unique trees and plants. On our return the sails went up on the multi-mast schooner for a fun 60-minute sail.

Booking for either half-day or full-day excursions is as easy as going online and selecting the package that is right for your family. Whether it’s parasailing over the Gulf or jet skiing around this 2 by 4-mile island of Key West, a day on the water is sure to create a lifetime of memories. And when the busy day is coming to an end there is no better way to take in the famous Key West sunsets than by enjoying them aboard dinner and/or sunset cruises. Many companies have varied packages with one to surely fit every family’s needs.

IMG_4017If you’d rather enjoy a meal on dry land Key West is certainly not lacking for fantastic food choices. Many of the island’s restaurants have been featured in worldwide publications and on national food and travel television networks. Starting off in the morning a trip to a couple of Key West’s best breakfast stops is bound to get your family’s day rolling in the right direction. For me it comes down to three ‘can’t miss’ places. Two Friends Patio is open all day long, but their homestyle breakfasts are always a good start to the day. LeCreperie is an amazing new restaurant on my ‘foodie radar’. Located just off Duval St., their savory crepe stuffed with scrambled eggs, various cheeses, and bacon is enough to make you wish breakfast time would never end. Perhaps my favorite breakfast stop is Pepe’s, located down by the marina. While they serve what may be considered a typically good breakfast, be sure to order their ‘toast of the day’; and pray to God that it is Coconut Toast. One bite of this beautiful piece of toasted homemade bread, and you may never look at toast the same way ever again.

The lunch choices on Key West can range from a one-of-a-kind burger experience at Garbo’s Grill to a mouth-watering lobster roll from DJs Clam Shack. I also recently stumbled across a great little Italian food and pizzeria restaurant called Onlywood. Located down a narrow lane off of Duval sits this little slice of Italy. With tables for eating inside or out, this place fires up some of the most outstanding pizza I have ever had the pleasure to enjoy. With its wood oven approaching a mind-boggling 1,000-degrees, the custom made pizza pies are ready in mere moments after ordering. Blue Heaven, Sunset Pier, and Sloppy Joe’s are also fun places to take the entire family for lunch. With great live entertainment daily and unique surroundings, all three locations serve great-tasting lunches with flair.

For evening dinners, one of the largest menus in Key West can be found at Fogarty’s on Duval. With open-air seating, this restaurant serves up great tasting juicy burgers to high-quality steaks, andIMG_4076 savory salmon to delicious desserts. Located adjacent to the restaurant is the Flying Monkey Saloon, serving delicious frozen drinks for moms and dads, as well as for the “under-agers” too. Fine dining reaches its pinnacle at The Hot Tin Roof, located at the Ocean Key Resort & Spa. Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, this premiere location is only outdone by its exquisite menu. Starting with an appetizer of tuna tartare and a tomato burrata salad, followed by an entree of scallop risotto or Latin braised short ribs, executive chef Jason Westphal promises a dining experience to remember. For dining in a less formal setting, a family can enjoy a great dinner at the Conch Republic Restaurant by the marina or Pinchers Crab Shack located along Duval St. Both serve a wide menu that is sure to please adults and kids.

History abounds in Key West. A stroll through the Truman Annex will lead you to the Little White House where President Harry S. Truman spent much of his time when not in Washington DC. Various art galleries and antique shops line the streets of Old Key West. One of the highlights of the history of Key West is the Mel Fisher treasure museum, where visitors can view Fisher’s motherload from the Atocha shipwreck. This, as well as the Key West Aquarium, Fort Zachary, and the Shipwreck IMG_4082Museum can provide hours of learning and fun while on vacation. Imagine that?!

Hitting the beaches while in Key West is highly recommended. Smathers Beach along the Atlantic Ocean and Fort Zachary State Park are two of the best. While Smathers is free, Ft. Zachary is a little less crowded because of the nominal fee. At Ft. Zachary State Park beach goers will enjoy a sense of complete solitude, while those choosing Smathers Beach will have a large selection of water sports and rentals to choose from.

So when you hear someone mention Key West in the future don’t be fooled by what you’ve heard about the crazy Spring Breakers or FantasyFest crazies. Check the KeyWest.com website Events Calendar, and you may find your vacation will coincide with their annual Food Festival or Key Lime Pie Week. As I’ve so often said, Key West is Paradise Found, for couples and families alike.

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Hail Caesar (salad) !

For a little over three years now I have been working on changing my diet and lifestyle, one day at a time. At my age I figured it was about time. It’s not easy, but the potential outcome is so very worth it. I started my “Journey to Better Health” in December of 2006 when I began working with the people at the now-defunct LA Weight Loss Center in Oswego, NY. They looked at my weight, age, and lifestyle and set up a realistic dietary plan for the next 365 days. They changed my eating habits and schedules, and I added exercise periods into my weekly schedule. Over the course of the next year I introduced myself to new foods such as turkey burger, fruits & vegetables, and salads (not the macaroni or potato variety either) as just some of my new daily foods. And over that same one-year period, through this diet plan and moderate exercise, I lost 65 pounds! My primary care physician saw all of my medical numbers improve tremendously, and I felt great, not only health-wise but psychologically too. 

Over the past few years my weight has fluctuated, maybe gaining a little of those 65 pounds back, but then stabilizing at my current weight. Weight maintenance is not easy. There are so many temptations that can throw you off, and I honestly have fallen off the ‘skinny wagon’ many times. Portion size, exercise, and the recognition that you don’t have to cut out any food completely are three mainstays that help me in my “journey”. 

I don’t consider what I’m doing as a “diet”. I look at it as more of a “lifestyle change”, or without meaning to sound too deep, an “awakening”. Gone are my days of four Diet Cokes a day. No more Friday nights of getting pizza and wings. And perhaps the biggest change of all is no more snacking after dinner until bedtime. The deletion of those things and many more bad habits, balanced with a healthier meal plan and exercise, are now the way I ‘choose’ to live my life. Without making these changes I was running the risk of shortening my life dramatically; and that was something I wasn’t ready to accept. (Heck, I’ve got to write for you people.) 

Many times people think of diets as a penalty or sentence. With the plan I was working with, and the way I look at food today, I now never think of food as a negative. In fact, I now enjoy cooking more than ever at home. I also have found that grocery shopping is a lot easier. Did you know that you can save time and a bundle on money if you shop around the perimeter of most grocery stores? That’s where you find the fruits and vegetables, meats, breads, and dairy products. In the middle aisles are the Fritos, Apple Jacks, brownie mixes, and sodas. 

Eating out is not something that is impossible either when on a diet plan. Once a week I try to treat myself to eating out; whether it’s at a sit-down style restaurant, or fast-food. That’s right, I said “fast-food”. Eating healthy can be done anywhere. Over the past couple years I have jotted down the restaurants I’ve visited, up and down the Atlantic seaboard. And from local restaurants in Central NY to eateries found in between Boston and Key West, I’d like to tell you of some of my favorites. During this time one entrée has become my favorite to order when dining out – Chicken Caesar salad. I never was a huge salad eater and didn’t realize that something as simple as a Caesar salad could be prepared so many different ways, and have several different tastes. So, strap yourself in, and let me take you on a Chicken Caesar salad roadtrip. 

Starting first in our local area of Central NY, you can find a great Chicken Caesar salad at Oswego’s Press Box, Canale’s Restaurant, Ruby Tuesday, and the Port City Bakery. When it comes to fast-food restaurants, I’ve found that Quizno’s maybe makes the best fast-food Chicken Caesar salad around. With regards to some of the larger chain restaurants, I have found spectacular Chicken Caesar salads at Panera Bread, Cheesecake Factory, and the Olive Garden. There are only two places that I have visited that I wouldn’t place high on this list for Chicken Caesar salad, and that’s Applebee’s and Chicago Uno. Now that’s not to say that the restaurants general menus weren’t good. It’s just that I didn’t think much of the presentation and taste of their Chicken Caesar salads. 

Heading into New England I have found several great Chicken Caesar salads at some Boston establishments. Topping the list was Dolce Vita Ristorante in Boston’s North End and sitting 52-floors above Boston’s Back Bay is the Top of the Hub Restaurant in the Prudential Building. Not only their Chicken Caesar salad very good, but the view is breathtaking. I also have found several good Chicken Caesar salads in the Quincy Market district, including Ames Plow and Cheers. 

Into Florida Chicken Caesar salads continue to impress at several restaurants that I’ve visited. I found one of the most unique presentations at Disney World’s Saratoga Springs Resort. Their Turf Club restaurant makes a very tasty Chicken Caesar salad by giving you whole stalks of romaine lettuce and the other ingredients on the side. In the culinary world I think they would call this a “de-constructed” Chicken Caesar salad. Cool, very cool. But perhaps the best Chicken Caesar salad I have had at any restaurant is the one served at the ESPN Club at Disney World’s Boardwalk. One word- Perfect! Perfect size, perfect taste, perfect amount of dressing….you get the idea. And oh by the way, whenever possible be sure to order the Caesar dressing on the side. 

Finally as we finish this leafy roadtrip we come to the end of the line, literally. Key West. In the country’s southernmost city I have enjoyed many Chicken Caesar salads. (And I don’t think those were the margaritas talking either.) On the famous Duval and Front Streets of Key West sit some fantastic restaurants. Fogarty’s, Island Dogs, The Rooftop Café, Caroline’s, Red Fish Blue Fish, and The Grand Café all rest high on my list for great tasting Chicken Caesar salads and one-of-a-kind atmospheres. After all it’s Key West. What’s not to enjoy? 

Now I know that you may be thinking, ‘Is this poor guy a slave to Chicken Caesar salad the rest of his life?’ But that’s really not the case. When I go out I often will mix it up with wraps and light sandwiches for lunch, and fish or poultry for dinner. Having a Chicken Caesar salad is something I choose, and enjoy. 

So whether you’re in the midst of making some changes for yourself or know someone that is, the bottom line is- don’t punish yourself. Rather, relish the idea of getting the opportunity of trying new things. You’ll be amazed at the results. I know that if my dad were alive today he wouldn’t believe what my daily diets looks like. I was always the picky eater of the family. You know, pizza, burgers, steaks, and potatoes, …lots of potatoes! 

Please don’t think of what I’ve done over the past few years as being easy, it’s not. But also don’t think of it as being impossible either. As the old motto goes- “Heck, if I can do it…..”  It simply comes down to a matter of what you want for a quality of life. And for me, that made all the difference.