Tag Archives: US 1

Lincolnville mural

Road Trip: Lights, Lincolnville and hidden history

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 24 issue of Creative Loafing Tampa.

If all St. Augustine had going for it was “oldest city in the United States” I would never go there again. I grow weary of the Spanish Quarter. I mean, how many times can you walk through the oldest schoolhouse? Honestly, there’s more to St. Augustine than this, and I made it my mission (see what I did there?) to find it.

Lincolnville
The bittersweet heartbreak of gentrification.

Problem is, real history — the fun stuff — doesn’t fit in boxes like the names and dates. Also, sometimes you get to watch history getting made, and it makes you cringe.

St. Augustine's Huguenot Cemetery
I see dead people.

OK, well, first things first: St. Augustine, if you can forgive it for being so damn insistent that it’s the oldest city in America (really, you can’t blame it, because those Jamestown schmucks totally co-opted that) has some awesome stuff. We stayed as guests of the Casa de Suenos, a funeral home turned B&B that sadly seems to have no ghosts but, happily, lies outside of the Spanish Quarter yet within walking distance of pretty much everything we wanted to see. After a late-night arrival, a hot Jacuzzi bath and a glass of in-room sherry (16th-century conquistadors had no such niceties), I collapse, exhausted, but wake determined to see something of St. Augustine that isn’t a tourist trap. Fountain of Youth? Um, no, that’s totally made up — Ponce de Leon never even believed in it.

For all its touristy history, though, St. Augustine really can’t help but ooze charm. It’s eminently walkable, and while we tend to spend our time looking at dead people (the Huguenot and yellow fever graveyards make me inordinately happy), there’s no denying later — as we sit on the upper deck of Meehan’s and work our way through a seafood tower and some superbly smooth Irish whiskey —that the old city has something special. We watch the horse-drawn carriages pull tourists in love up and down the waterfront, and we watch the sun sink into the bay over the Bridge of Lions.

The real reason I’m here, though, is the Night of Lights.

Every Christmas season, St. Augustinians light pretty much every solid surface of the city with three million twinkly lights, earning the celebration a spot on National Geographic‘s list of the world’s ten best holiday light displays. And certainly the lights impress, but to me, the reason the lights came about at all touches me more.

When St. Augustine belonged to Spain, the Brits had a lot of angst about the Spanish being so close to the colonies. The Spanish, for their part, weren’t in love with the Brits being right next door, either. Florida was then — as it is now — damn desirable, so being a Spanish sailor in Florida was not a whole lot of fun, what with tensions high and every boat maybe staging an attack on La Florida. On top of that, sailors returning home had no easy way to tell if the city remained under Spanish control or if it had fallen into enemy hands.

The people of St. Augustine had an easy workaround for this: If the city remained safe, homes facing the water burned a single candle in the window. If the ships didn’t see all the windows lit up, they knew the city was under siege or had already fallen under enemy control.

Hence, the Night of Lights.

Lincolnville
One perspective on LIncolnville

This story remains at the forefront of my head the next day. A stop at a nondescript sandwich shop (Hot Shots) for an exquisite sandwich leads us further away from the city, this time in a car. We head into Lincolnville, an historically African-American part of town that clearly hasn’t blossomed under the same level of care and love as the Spanish Quarter.

Lincolnville
The same two houses from a slightly different perspective. All is not what it seems.

[read the rest at cltampa.com]

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.

Detours & Diversions: Key West Before Duval

Key West WPA“Key West was to be made the American winter resort of the tropics.”
– From the 1941 Works Progress Administration’s Key West
  
WHAT: To the uninitiated, Key West is just around the corner from anywhere in Florida. In reality, driving from Pensacola to Key West will take only seven fewer minutes than driving from Pensacola to Chicago. Of course, Key West is the warmer of the two places, and perhaps decidedly more quirky. The island, a seven-and-a-half square mile collection of roughly 25,000 residents, has a reputation for odd. More than one new Gulfport resident likens the town to Key West.
Conch RepublicKey West, if you believe the stories, is filled with people who moved south to drop out. It’s a collection of extremes. In 1982 the federal government mounted a roadblock on US 1 to stop illegal aliens from entering the country. Since the roadblock was north of Key West, this meant Conchs (Key West residents) had to prove their citizenship to leave the island. In protest, they seceded from the United States, then immediately surrendered and demanded reparations.
Key West, this story seems to prove, is nothing like the rest of the United States. It’s even the cheeky cousin of mainland Florida, no slouch itself when it comes to wacky headlines. Arts of all sorts abound; Hemingway had a home here; Winslow Homer painted here. Countless artists across an abundance of mediums live and work in Key West. However, Key Weird (as some call it) attracts the arts community not by chance or the appeal of a remote bohemian community; Key West attracts artists because during the Great Depression, the federal government plugged money into the arts in Key West. Arts, and the tourists their work attracted, would save the key from economic death.
WHY: In the 1830s, Key West was the wealthiest city in the United States, with professional wreckers (also called pirates) earning a good living. By 1934, situations changed and Key West was bankrupt. This wasn’t a “paper” bankruptcy: the city had no money to pay its employees. When the city asked the federal government for help during the Great Depression, 80% of its residents already received federal aid. Its pleas were specific: Please send money so we can tell the world how great we are. The plan was to make the city a tourist destination on par with Bermuda and Nassau.
FERA workerThe Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) imported artists to create works of art that would promote Key West as a tourist destination. Murals, advertising, guidebook illustrations and postcards resulted from this glut of artists. Citizens volunteered over two million man-hours to clean streets, develop beaches, create sanitation systems, and renovate and redecorate houses. Across the nation, city planners lauded this bold community planning experiment. Talent the government could not import, it taught. Residents on the government dole took classes in how to make art, which consisted of everything from drawings to ashtrays.
WHO: Key West is the Monroe County seat. Monroe includes parts of Everglades National Park, Big Cypress Preserve, the Dry Tortugas and the entire chain of limestone islands curving around the tip of mainland Florida.
WHEREMM0, at the end of US 1.
Some people just love to be right.
Some people just love to be right.

BEST part: The cemetery with the sense of humor. Stroll through the headstones (bring plenty of water) and find epitaphs like “Just resting my eyes,” and “I told you I was sick.”

WORST part: In the case of what FERA and 1930s Key West officials hoped to accomplish, Duval Street remains the prime example of getting what you wish for: tourists.
FUN fact: During prohibition, some homes used the negative space in the gingerbread trim to advertise guns or booze for sale. Look for homes with guns or liquor bottles hidden in second-story trim.
MAGIC Question: Key West isn’t cheap. Even the cheapest hotels cost a couple of hundred dollars a night. Parking costs about $14 a day. Just off-island, try the Sugarloaf KOA or the Sugarloaf Lodge.