Road Trip: In the Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Tiki, Room

Tiki Goddess at Trader Sam's Grog GrottoSo I’m a little behind in updating my travels. Late last year I accepted the Arts and Entertainment editor position at Creative Loafing Tampa and in January, I started. It’s taken some time toadjust to the new position, so I haven’t posted like I want to post. However, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been traveling and writing about it. Once a month I take a road trip and write about it in the not-so-subtly titled Road Trip feature.

Here’s my August Road Trip,  about Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at the Walt Disney World Resort. Why here? Because the bar — and it is a bar, make no mistake — has artifacts from the old Enchanted Tiki Room at the Magic Kingdom. It’s a pretty cool story. You should read it. Seriously, click here and read it.

Backroads of Paradise

Five. Years.

Backroads of Paradise
I don’t remember what we were going to do last night, but we ended up looking at the book and smiling.

Last night I came home and Barry had cleaned the living room and kitchen. This made me happy. After I gazed lovingly at my clean floors, I noticed a box behind him on the counter.

“What’s that?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Who’s it from?”

“The University Press of Florida,” and then he smiled. Big smile, because the box could only be one thing, really: The author copies of my book.

The book has arrived. Finally. It’s real. It has my name on it and everything.

Then, this morning, that thing on Facebook where you see your memories on the same date in years past popped up with this:Facebook "On this day" Stetson Kennedy One day shy of five years to the day after Stetson Kennedy died, my travel narrative about retracing the tours he helped created in the 1930s arrives.

Five years. Five years to take the trips, write the book, edit the book, revise the book, edit the book, do all the things you have to do after you write and edit and revise and edit a book, and to get to here. That’s a long time, or at least, it feels that way.

I never met the man — he died too soon — and anyone who’s seen the book in any of its drafts knows I did my own thing — this book doesn’t quite resemble the guide he helped create — but I hope, wherever it is that Florida people like him go when they die, he doesn’t hate it and, more importantly, he knows how much his legacy has impacted my life.

You can buy the book here, and I truly hope you do. I re-read a lot of it last night and I’m certainly not impartial, but I do kind of love it.

The Great Couchsurfing Book Tour

Couchsurfing
That’s me, sans fur. Credit: flickr/David K

Although Backroads of Paradise doesn’t hit bookstore shelves for another two months, I’ve started getting requests from bookstores and libraries around the state for me to come speak. The great marketing team at UPF (University Press of Florida) has also convinced the Miami Book Fair and the Southern Independent Booksellers Association (apparently the cool kids call that SIBA) that I should speak at their shows.

Miami and SIBA are big deals, and I’m thrilled. Also, I have a small — quite small — travel budget from the press, so I get to go to Miami and then Savannah essentially for free. The libraries and bookstores? Not so much, and so I get creative. Look, I’m not complaining at all about people wanting me to come to their corner of Florida and talk about why I love Florida (honestly, that part’s a dream come true); I’m concerned about budget because, well, since the press hasn’t finished printing Backroads of Paradise yet, I haven’t seen a royalty check.

Because I love to travel and talk about Florida and I don’t want to tell anyone no (I mean, this is how I sell books, right?) I’ll couch surf. Last night I heard someone describe this as a “couch surfing book tour” and they’d done it themselves. And now, it seems, I will do it myself.

Which means a lot of my old friends spread out across the state may get a phone call in the coming months. Forewarned is forearmed, y’all.

Also, if you have a bookstore/work at a library/ sit on a board of a historical society, please get in touch with me to have me come speak.

I promise I won’t ask to sleep on your couch.

Probably.

Hey, buy my book now. It’s the gift that keeps giving, because you’ll get it October, so it’s like TWO Amazon purchases!

Backroads of Paradise: Almost as real as the Velveteen Rabbit!

Backroads of Paradise
Backroads of Paradise has landed! Well, almost — you can preorder it!

At long last, the book has landed. It has a title, Backroads of Paradise, and an ISBN number and everything. Just like the velveteen rabbit, It’s real.

Well, mostly — it really real on October 4, but you can pre-order it now from Amazon and they’ll ship it to you in October. Alternately, you can order it through the University Press of Florida, where you can also read an excerpt  (in case you need further persuading, or in case you don’t feel you can wait any longer, a feeling a I know quite well) from my tour across the coastal edge of Florida’s panhandle (yay, oysters!).

I don’t want to go on too much (I’ve already done that here), and I don’t want to brag or anything, but according to Amazon, Backroads of Paradise, is already #2171 on  the bestseller lists for South Atlantic United States travel books, so, you know, almost as popular as 50 Shades of Gray and infinitely better written. Also, it weighs 1.7 pounds. That’s a lot of Florida right there, y’all…

Backroads of Paradise catalog
It’s surreal to read what other people say about my writing. I mean, it happens all the time at my job, but this feels different somehow.

And yes, I’ll compulsively track those sales numbers on Amazon, because it’s not stalking if it’s not a person, right?

Oh, and because people have asked: Yes, UPF will release this as an ebook, and that option should show up soon on Amazon; and no, it doesn’t matter to me where you buy the book, Amazon or UPF, so long as you buy Backroads of Paradise. As in, right now. For everyone you know.

It’s Alive!

Hula Florida girl
She’s the hardest working hula girl in the business.

It feels like forever, but it’s finally here.

Almost.

My book has a title and a release date. Well, a release month: October.

And the title? Oh, yeah: Backroads of Paradise.

So far, I’ve seen two of the blurbs for it — Craig Pittman and Gary Mormino (those of you who know him will not at all be shocked when that link doesn’t take you to an author website), both accomplished authors for whom I have great respect — and they both have wonderful things to say.

And that’s all I have, which is a lot of me jumping up and down and going “At last! It’s been five years since I started planning this road trip, and now, it’s a book. With pages. And a cover. And a press to manage all the crappy details I don’t want to deal with!”

So, yeah, that’s “all I have” but it’s still pretty big in Cathy-world.

As soon as it’s available for pre-order, which should be a few months yet, I’ll post the links here. And, well, pretty much everywhere else.

Poppo’s Taqueria: Wild Pig, Fresh Tacos, Florida Vibes

Poppo's TaqueriaWhenever I take a road trip, I look for local food. This is not exactly born of some grand desire to “eat local” (although I do heartily endorse locavorism, something made easy by living in one of the best places in the world for fresh citrus, seafood, and free-range beef). No, I seek out the local food because how different regions of Florida (and the United States, and the world) eat fascinates me. Florida food historian Andy Huse told me once, “if you want to know about a culture, look at what they ate” and I’ve learned he’s quite right.

Whenever I read of an eatery that catches my interest, I note in a Florida Bucket List reminder list I created on my iPhone specifically so I can see everything in Florida. It’s driving me crazy because I can’t recall how I heard about this place. All I know is that I’ve had it on my Florida Bucket List for at least a year, and I finally made it there last week.

Anna Maria Island, if you’ve never visited, is this slice of sandy paradise, although it’s losing ground to development. Beautiful beach cottages that evoke a Florida where people came for the beach, went to the beach, and stayed for the beach are giving way to slightly larger, less Florida-like homes that happen to be on the water. Like most coastal communities south of Tampa Bay, the island is given to exploding into shocks of color here and there, a rapid upshot of fuchsia here, a jolt of crimson and saffron there.

Poppo's TaqueriaThe wonderful thing about beach communities like this is the implied abundance of the sea’s bounty: mahi, grouper, shrimp, and oyster abound at local restaurants. The heartbreaking thing about these same communities is the dearth of restaurants doing anything well other than that bounty. It’s often a case of “amazing oysters” and soggy burgers, with little or no middle ground.

Poppo’s Taqueria, then, doesn’t fit at all, which makes it perfect here. It doesn’t have seafood. It’s a counter service taco place, not on the water, and not given to large groups. It’s reasonably priced. They have regular tacos here (you can get carnitas with onions, lime and cilantro for under three bucks) but I came for the Florida boar tacos (well worth the 50¢ upcharge, I might add, as was the other 50¢ upcharge, for sour cream.

Florida Boar
That’s dead pig, people. Dead, glorious Florida pig.

Two tacos (wild boar, both with sour cream) and an order of tortilla chips left me about $8 poorer, I believe. Not bad at all. And a word about those tortilla chips: while Poppo’s makes your food as you order it (think Subway with better ingredients), the chips will come out after your meal. They’re thick, salty, and unlike any other Mexican restaurant tortilla chip you will ever eat.

I fell in love with this place, which is about 15 miles from my home in Gulfport but, because of pesky things like Tampa Bay and roads that don’t get you there “as the crow flies”, it takes about an hour to get there.
Poppo's Tacqueria porch chair

It’s the sort of place that blends in to the riot of colors on the island. I know I’ve passed it before, but I’ve never noticed it, even after it fell onto my radar for Anna Maria Island. It’s a blip of a storefront, hidden in plain sight. Tropical green things surround the wood porch with its funky birdcage chairs and shabby chic cushions. Inside, it’s almost utilitarian, with a beer bar on one side (local beer, of course, plus the usual island beer – in Florida, it’s the law that if you have sand in your parking lot, you must also sell Corona Light) and a taco bar on the other.

Calypso and I ate in folding wooden chairs on the front porch and watched the storm roll in over the Gulf of Mexico. Well, from that direction, anyway. For a beach-y place, Poppo’s doesn’t really afford you a view of the beach. Or the water. But that’s OK, because they have these tacos that make it all worthwhile.

Detours & Diversions– Fish Kisses From Mimi: Islamorada’s Theater of the Sea

Mimi TongueMimi has fish breath, but that’s OK. At 25, she’s had her share of mackerel or smelt or whatever it is sea lions like to snack on. When she leans in to kiss me, I smell a quarter-century of fish. Of course, that’s the least of my worries; the greater issue is that I have a lumbering sea mammal leaning on my hips as she tries to kiss me.

“Sea lions are very efficient in their muscle use,” Mimi’s trainer, Jerry, tells me. I wonder if that’s a euphemism for lazy, but I only wonder for a second, because the next thing I know I’ve got a face full of whiskers and hot sea lion breath.

I am not a “swim with the dolphins” kind of gal, but this experience is something extraordinary. Mimi utterly and completely charmed me, and even though I knew she was responding to trainer commands, I was besotted.

Also, it’s nice to know that laziness isn’t limited to humans. She didn’t miss a chance to lean on me. The experience of a sea lion swimming over to you and resting her weight on your hip while putting a flipper on your back is… surreal.

Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, Florida
Theater of the Sea, in Islamorada, opened in 1946.

WHAT: If you’ve ever driven through the Florida Keys, you’ve seen Islamorada’s Theater of the Sea. This marine mammal park first caught my attention on a college field trip, but it’s taken me two decades to actually step inside the park. They have sea lion, dolphin and parrot shows, guided nature walks, a small beach and a bottomless boat ride where the dolphins pop up in the center of the boat.

Theater of the Sea also offers marine mammal and sting ray encounters. While several aquatic theme parks offer dolphin swims, they also offer sea lion and sting ray swims.

WHY: This is the quintessential Florida marine mammal park. It combines old-school tourism (think parrot shows) with humane handling of the sea mammals (the dolphins and sea lions get their full meals whether or not they choose to perform in a show that day.) For the money, this is the best old-school theme park in Florida. Plus, it’s not every day you get to kiss a sea lion.

WHO: Theater of the Sea opened in 1946. The park used a lagoon from a quarry used in building Flagler’s railroad. The railroad is long gone, but the dolphins, turtles, and gators remain.

WHEN: The park opens every day of the year at 9:30 a.m.; at 4:30, the last bottomless boat ride and nature tour begins. Expect to spend three hours on tours and shows; add another hour or more for encounters and swims.

WHERE: Mile Marker 84.5, Islamorada, the Florida Keys.

Mimi at Theater of the Sea
Mimi gives the best kisses. She’s the one on the left.

BEST part: The 30 minutes I spent in the water with Mimi is something I will never forget. It’s pricey but totally worth it; I smiled for days afterwards.

WORST part: Like every other marine mammal park that offers these programs, Theater of the Sea attributes human qualities to trained behavior. Does Mimi think she kissed me? No, she simply did what Jerry trained her to do.

I would prefer to just be in the water with her acting as she would without trainer intervention, but I imagine that if that happened, I’d find that she had no interest in coming anywhere near me. I understand why these parks do what they do;  it doesn’t stop me from cringing when I hear “Give kisses!” It also doesn’t stop me from highly recommending the sea lion swim.

MAGIC Question: The sea lion swim costs about $150; dolphin swims cost $175. Park admission, included in these prices, otherwise costs $27 (plus tax.) The park also has less-expensive sea life encounters, such as sting ray swims and dolphin encounters. Check their web site at TheaterOfTheSea.com for pricing and information. Alternately, you can call (305) 664-2431.

This originally appeared in a March, 2011 edition of the Gabber Newspaper.

Detours & Diversions – The Other Side of Tampa Bay: Paradise in the Sand

“Anna Maria Key, lying to the south of Tampa Bay and separated from the mainland by Sarasota Pass, one of the many sand and shell islands bordering the west coast. It rises but a few feet above sea level and is covered with mangrove swamps, palm savannahs, salt flats, cacti thickets, and buttonwood trees. Anna Maria, a resort at the northern extremity of Anna Maria Key, consists of many cottages in a jungle setting.” –The WPA Guide to the Southernmost State, 1939

WHAT: Much has changed on Anna Maria Island since 1937. The palm savannahs surrendered to beach cottages, and while the island itself rises but a few feet above the warm, turquoise Gulf, bungalows at Anna Maria’s edge prop themselves like mangroves, resting just out of reach of salt and waves.

The spirit of the island remains untouched. Sand and shells abound, and the entire low-lying tropical jungle has bursts of blazing pink bougainvillea  cascading over fences and dazzling orange birds of paradise standing guard along walkways. While the other side of Tampa Bay boasts the most densely populated county in the state, the pink Don CeSar in the distance fades against the tropical landscape of colors and the ever-permeating salt air.

 

WHY: You can draw the silhouette of much of Florida’s coast with condominium-and hotel-colored crayons. Not so here; everything on this seven-mile strip of paradise –even her stilt homes –is short. The island draws tourists without needing tall hotels and convention centers; visitors can make their way around the island’s shell-lined streets and paths using foot or pedal power. The island has no chain restaurants, and while you can get milk at a local market, you’ll need to head to the next town over for a supermarket.

 

WHO: It’s a small town of locals and visitors, fishermen and sunbathers. Anna Maria is one of six incorporated cities in Manatee county, a county with a third of the people of its neighbor to the north, Pinellas.

 

WHERE: If you look across Tampa Bay from Pass-a-Grille or Fort DeSoto, you can see Anna Maria in the distance. By boat it’s a short hop around Egmont to Anna Maria; by car, it’s just under an hour to cover the same distance. Anna Maria is at the northernmost tip of Manatee’s nothernmost barrier island.

 

BEST part: Anna Maria Island evokes memories of the Florida in your heart, the sandy paradise that draws people here year after year. It’s old Florida with air conditioning, bleached shell paths that crunch under your feet, and coral sunsets dotted with crimson blossoms. It’s fishing piers and walks on the beach; it’s beer at sunset and fish for dinner. Every part is the best part.
WORST part: With beaches everywhere, it’s a shame the city doesn’t allow dogs on at least one of them. There are a few places along the bay where you can get away with letting your pooch run off leash, but they’re not designated as dog beaches and you run the risk of being told to take your furry friend off the sand. Locals say there’s talk of a dog beach.

 

MAGIC Question: Free. Lodging and food run the gamut. Expect to pay a premium for waterside accommodations, although you can get a room for under $100 a night. Weekly stays cost less per night.
This initially appeared in the Gabber Newspaper in January, 2012.

Detours & Diversions – Fort Lauderdale’s Mai Kai Polynesian Restaurant and Tiki Bar

Forget tickets to Tahiti. Don’t worry about getting transportation around Easter Island. If you’re craving a taste of Polynesia, look no further than Fort Lauderdale’s Mai Kai restaurant. While other “dinner and show” experiences in Florida promise Arabian evenings or a medieval jousting match, Florida’s original dinner and show venue does it best. 

Once you step through the doors of the Mai Kai, you’re adrift in the South Pacific. Don’t try and fight it; just simply enjoy the ride.

WHO: The Mai Kai, a Polynesian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, exudes Polynesia. The Mai Kai opened in 1956 and there’s no other like it, in Fort Lauderdale or anywhere else. Some places in French Polynesia may come close, of course, but without the Florida nuances that make the Mai Kai so special.

WHAT: It’s an old-style Polynesian restaurant-slash-Tiki-bar-slash-Polynesian revue. You can stop by the Molokai Bar for drinks or go in for the whole dinner-and-show experience. The whole place operates under a big thatched Tiki hut– large enough to house a fantastic bar, a couple of levels of dining, a gift shop, and gardens. The inside of the Molokai resembles the belowdecks of a galleon. The Islander Revue features Polynesian dances from various cultures; for almost an hour the dancers perform while a narrator explains the meaning of each dance.

WHEN: The Islanders perform twice nightly. The Molokai stays open until 2 a.m. but from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. has happy hour.

WHERE: 3599 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Call for reservations: 954-563-3272.

WHY: It’s schmaltzy, it’s pricey, and it’s wonderful. The Mai Kai has held on to the type of entertainment that tourists fl ocked to before the mouse came to town. It’s classic Florida combined with strong drinks, Cantonese cuisine, and Easter Island style. The Mai Kai is reminsicient of a 1960s Technicolor fi lm with dishes with names like “Lobster Bora Bora” and so-old-it’s-hip-again Tiki and Tahitian decor. The show and the food make the entire experience one out of time and place- for two hours the Mai Kai staff takes you to Polynesia and the 1960s.

BEST Part: The bar, even if you don’t drink. As we said, it’s designed to look as though you’re below deck on a galleon, complete with water coursing over the windows. Maori and other Tikistatues abound, the Mai Tais come with fresh mint and chunks of pineapple, and you get free sushi during Wednesday’s happy hour.

Fun Fact: The Derby Daiquiri dates back to 1961, when a Mai Kai bartender created it to enter into a contest to name the official drink of the Florida Derby. In the days predating Floridizing mainstream cocktails, the bartender made a daiquiri with Florida orange juice. The Derby Daiquiri won first place and the honor of “The Official Drink of the Florida Derby.” Read more about the Florida Derby at my food-centric site, Aphrodite’s Hearth.

SARONG – clad  maidens (the actual bartender remains out of sight) bring your drinks. Of course these girls are gorgeous, but Mai Kai management can apparently afford to be fussy: Jessica (our sarong-clad maiden) talked to us about her favorite Florida authors (Randy Wayne White and Tim Dorsey) and the local economy. She also let told us that only recently did the Mai Kai aquiesce to hire blondes; in the name of authenticity they used to hire dark-haired women only. The ship-style decor, intelligent women wearing almost nothing, and the well-mixed Mai Tais are a devastating trilogy. A staff seamstress makes each sarong and matching bikini top for each maiden.

MAGIC Question: The show portion of the “dinner and show” costs $9.95; everything after that costs much more. For two people, dinner (before tip) can eat and drink  for around $150. You’ll probably also want to factor in a night’s stay down south, because after the amount of food and the potency of Polynesian drinks, you will not feel like making the trek back home.

Parts of this appeared  in the Gabber Newspaper, April 19, 2007.

US 98: Oysters, Mullet & Margaritas

So one of the things I do – and one of the things I love to do, even though when I did my first one I kind of dreaded it – is talk to people about my travels across Florida and how the Guide to the Southernmost State is perhaps the best guidebook to Florida ever. Do NOT make the mistake of asking me a Florida-related question if you want a quick answer, and under no circumstances should you ask me a Florida question and then allow me to corner you on the street if you have somewhere you need to be. Ever. I love to talk about how I retraced the depression-era driving tours of the state.

Sour Orange Margaritas for everyone!  Teacher of the year, ladies and gentlemen.

Last night was no exception, except these weren’t hapless strangers I cornered on the street but an enthusiastic group of residents who live at Westminster Palms at the edge of Old Northeast. My topic? Eating your way across the panhandle, using the 1939 WPA Guide to the Southernmost State as, well, a guide. I called my talk Oysters, Mullet & Margaritas.

The great folks at Westminster partner with OLLI at Eckerd College to bring speakers to the Palms. One of the Palms staff prepared pulled pork sliders and key lime pie. I brought Ted Peters fish spread. At the end, even though technically they weren’t from the panhandle, I made the “class” sour orange margaritas. Best. Teacher. Ever.

If you want my recipe for sour orange margaritas, there’s a whole post on my food blog, Aphrodite’s Hearth. I’d give it to you here, but it would consume the whole post space with interesting-to-foodies-but-maybe-not-to-you facts about sour oranges, sour mix, sugar and– well, you get the idea.

I will say this about sour oranges: One does not simply saunter into a grocery store and purchase them. I had some juice in my fridge from a December OLLI trip to Hawthorne, where Chef Omar at Southern Charm made the OLLI class sour orange pie and gave me a few of his stash.

That juice made for a good start but Ben Tillett, the owner of The Citrus Place in Terra Ceia, totally saved the day. Fresh sour oranges are not standard in any store I’ve seen, even orange juice stands – they’re beyond specialty. Mr. Tillett went into his groves yesterday morning and picked all the sour oranges he had on hand. If you’ve never been to the Citrus Place, it’s the first left after the first exit as you head south over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. They have juice they squeeze on-premises, orange ice cream, Terra Ceia clams, and oranges and grapefruit from nearby Parrish and Odessa. I wrote about them in January 2010; read that Detours & Diversions piece here.

The whole talk made me realize how little many Floridians know about Florida’s food mores. We have a rich history with aquaculture but also agriculture and ranching, and none of that is new: Dating back before the Guide made its way into Florida homes, Floridians worked the land and waters. I can’t imagine living somewhere without readily-accessible seafood or local beef, but many of the people who attend my talks (not all) tell me they had no idea Florida had as much food production as it does.

What’s so cool about food in Florida is that the things we produce locally now are the same things we produced locally 500 years ago: Oysters, mullet, redfish, fruit… it’s all the same. We brought in citrus from Spain when we decided St. Augustine should be a thing, so even that’s hung around Florida since the European beginning. But the mullet and mussels and such? As long as people called Florida home, that’s what they ate, because that’s what Florida made. Which is kind of cool, when you think about things in terms of the Columbian exchange of foods between the new world and the old. Much of what we can readily get in Florida was here before the Europeans.

Well, OK, except for the sour orange margaritas. Those are totally new. I’m pretty sure the Calusa didn’t have triple sec.