Category Archives: Explore Florida

Dogs and Kayaks in Florida

a dachshund in a pink and lifejacket with white polka dots, resting her chin on a green kayak.
Dogs are happiest when they’re with their packs, and Calypso is no exception, even if it does mean kayaking.
Cathy Salustri

One of the first things I did when I brought home Calypso some 15 years ago was take her kayaking on the Weeki Wachee. Still puppy-sized, she curled up on the bow of my kayak and took a nap. That is, until she saw a mullet swim past the kayak – then she jumped in and tried to catch it. When she realized she couldn’t, she swam to the side of my kayak and put her paw on it, asking to get back in the boat.

Thus began the start of a great adventure for her – and for me. I didn’t take my last dog, a wonderful liver-spot Dalmatian named Madison, kayaking with me, for a couple of reasons. One, she was exceptionally high strung, and two, I didn’t get a kayak until she was seven, and I didn’t think she’d easily take to it. I didn’t make that same mistake with Calypso: From day one, she’s gone pretty much everywhere with me, including kayaking and boating. That whole “paw on the side of the ‘yak to get back in” thing? Yeah, she mastered that. One of my many part-time jobs was as a kayak guide, and one day, my boss and I were scouting different locations on our paddle boards. Calypso got bored with me, jumped off, swam over to him, and put her paw on his board. I guess she wanted a change of pace.

We have paddling rules: After a near-disaster on the Hillsborough (she saw gator hatchlings and tried to go after them, which resulted in my yanking her back in the kayak by her tail and stuffing her under the bow), Calypso doesn’t kayak on many freshwater rivers unless they’re crystal-clear (Chassahowitzka, yes; Hillsborough, no). She doesn’t sleep on the bow anymore. And, if we’re in saltwater, I always let her jump out and swim the last 15 feet to shore – and then roll in the sand. It’s tradition.

When we adopted Banyan, neither Barry nor I knew how a 2-year-old dog who had spent almost the whole of her life in a shelter would handle being on the water, so we didn’t push her – it took enough effort to get her to not get physically ill when we had people over for dinner.

But during the pandemic, we tried her on a kayak while holed up in a cottage in Islamorada. Turns out, as long as her person – that’d be Barry, not me – goes with, she’s fine.

a man in a sit-on-top kayak, with a coonhound also in the kayak. The kayak is green.
Banyan wasn’t sure at first, but in no time at all she got the hang of letting Barry do all the work while she enjoyed the ride!
Cathy Salustri

For Banyan’s first paddle, we used a resort sit-on-top, so when we tried her in our cockpit-style kayak, we weren’t sure how it would work.

Turns out it worked just fine. Fine, that is, as long as Barry is there with her. She climbs in, waits for him, and off they go, like she was born for it. She’s living her best life.

A dog sleeping in an orange kayak. A man is at the helm
Banyan and Barry paddle the Chassahowitzka. Well, Barry paddles. Banyan naps and soaks up some sun.
Cathy Salustri

Bottom line? There are some places you don’t bring a dog in Florida: gator-infested waters, Mar-a-Lago, beaches with active seabird nests. But there are plenty of places where your furry BFF will love to go: Saltwater paddles, beaches without specific dog exclusions (be reasonable and don’t let them trounce nests, please), bike rides… you get the idea.

My point is, don’t assume that your dog won’t love it just because she’s never done it. In my experience, the important thing to your dog is that she gets to do it with you.

RIP: The Tevas That Helped Me Reclaim My Life

Last month, my beloved Teva water shoes turned old enough to drink.

Yesterday, I said goodbye to them.

This is harder than it should be. After all, they’re just shoes and, if you know me, you know that I’m not particularly attached to shoes. I’ll never be the fashionista in the TJ Maxx commercial, and I am 100% OK with that.

But still, these shoes… they were magic. They served me well, but more than that, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without these shoes.

Hand holding sandy Teva Proton shoes over saltwater
I love these shoes.
Cathy Salustri

Let me explain.

If more than five people reading this (hi, mom!) knew me in 2001, I’d be shocked. I was a different person then, and – if we’re being honest – not one I liked. I’d gotten so far away from who I wanted to be when I was 18, and so far from the things I loved that I didn’t recognize myself. I had an 8-to-5 job working in public relations. I wore pantyhose and pantsuits. I never went to the beach. I didn’t own a kayak. I lived in a homogenous suburb in a homogenous city in a state that, while brimming with life and vibrancy, had sort of overlooked my neighborhood. I’d last been to the Florida Keys before I met my first husband, who promised to take me every year for a decade and then, for a decade, didn’t.

He didn’t like the Keys, and the fact that I stayed with him for 10 years tells you everything you need to know about how far I’d gotten from the 19-year-old me who delighted in snorkeling the reefs and sitting watching the sunset.

Everything about my life was wrong.

But then… then came the Tevas.

In June 2001, I’d convinced my future ex-husband to make reservations – for real this time – at a place on Conch Key called the Bay View Inn. We planned several days there, and Conch Key had spotty cell phone service (it was 2001, so internet access wasn’t really a thing) and no restaurants. The hotel was on the water, and it sounded like paradise to me.

My future ex-husband, however, thought it was hell, and he had other ideas. The night before we left (it’s been 21 years so the timeline may not be 100%, but the spirit is true), he told me he didn’t think it was a good idea for him to take his vacation time and leave work.

To recap: I met this man in 1993, moved in with him the same year, married him in 1995, and, since 1993, had been promised and subsequently denied trips to the Keys every year. Eight years after he first promised to take me to the Keys, I’d had enough.

“That’s fine,” I told him, then added, “but I’m going with or without you.”

It was a watershed moment for me. I got engaged to this man when I was 20 (not old enough to rent a car, but sure, pledge your life to another person, no problem), married him when I was 22, and I simply believed you went along with your spouse. At the ripe old age of 28, though, I’d hit my limit. I wanted to go to the Keys, and I was going to go – with or without him.

You’re probably wondering about the Tevas. Stay with me.

That evening, he decided he could go to the Keys after all, and I realized I could have called his bluff on not going eight years prior. We went to the Sports Authority in Clearwater for water shoes, where I looked for a sturdy water shoe suitable for navigating rocky beaches and fitting into fins.

Now, I’d sold shoes – twice, in fact. I’d even gotten a degree from Shoe University (thank you, Dillard’s!) and I knew the logic behind buying pricier shoes. They last longer, the ones geared towards function over fashion are easier on your ankles and hips, and – this matters – if you pay a decent price for shoes, there’s a better chance the company that makes them pays the workers a living wage. (Not always, but trust me, those $13 sneakers are not fair trade.)

Nevertheless, these $68 Teva Protons were a hard sell for me. They were water shoes, for Christ’s sake. I was going to plunge them into saltwater. I was going to abuse these shoes. Shouldn’t shoes you were going to tear the hell up cost less?

In the end, the $68 Tevas won. I was going the Keys, finally, and I needed decent water shoes. Plus, we could afford it. My PR job paid crap, but the future ex worked for an ISP before the crash, so, you know, gravy days.

Not shockingly, the shoes outlasted the marriage. While we were in the Keys and my future ex delayed a snorkel trip long enough that we missed it, he admitted – finally – that he hated the Keys and didn’t even really like Florida. He told me, “I think we just want different things out of life.”

It was our sixth anniversary that day.

At the time, those words devastated me (what twenty-something wants to be told the person they thought they would spend her life with had no interest in the things she loved?) but, in the way only a twenty-something can, recovered and told myself that once he died, I could go to the Keys as often as I liked. (It was only later that a coworker pointed out the heartbreaking stoicism of my plan.)

It took another 19 months, but I left him and found the life I wanted. The path out wasn’t pretty, but that’s a story for another time.

But after I left him? There was kayaking. And sailing,. And, of course, my beloved Florida Keys. I left my husband in December 2002, and by spring 2003, I was back in the Keys – by myself this time – with my kayak and bike.

Teva water shoes in the sand
These shoes are not unlike Dorothy’s slippers – they helped me find my way home.
Cathy Salustri

And my Tevas.

Together, we made memories. I climbed into my new kayak for the first time in my Tevas. I went snorkeling in the Florida Keys and slipped my Tevas into the fins. I worked as a kayak guide in Boca Ciega Bay in my Tevas. I paddle boarded in my Tevas. After countless tropical storms where I had to document things for the local weekly paper, I wore my Tevas. I used them for any sort of water adventure.

And now, life was an adventure. Everything was exciting and new and raw and I loved it all. Right before the pandemic – I’m talking days before lockdown – I went for a swamp walk in Big Cypress and almost stepped on a juvenile cottonmouth… in my Tevas. In 2011, I camped throughout the state and wrote a book about it and, for a great deal of it, I wore those same Tevas.

For the past 21 years (and one month), if I had an adventure, I had them in my Tevas. Eventually, I met a new, infinitely more wonderful man, and he takes every adventure with me, but it’s always been him, me, and my Tevas. We were a menage a Teva, really.

I knew they were getting older. The rubber by the toes cracked, but still, I slipped them on my feet. I watched the fabric start to get nubby and the pull tabs that helped me slip them on start to pull a bit, but still, I wore them.

And then, yesterday, 21 years, one month, and eight days after I bought them and declared my independence from a bad marriage and a bad husband, they would go no further.

I led an OLLI group to Caladesi Island. OLLI is a lifelong learning program, and the Explore Florida group focuses on Florida adventures. On the island, I gave a short talk about sea grass and beaches and bay health, and then I left them to a sandcastle contest and went into the water. As I walked out, I realize something wasn’t right with the shoes.

The cracks – after more than two decades, there were a few cracks – had let the sand leak in and ball up under my heel, and no amount of rinsing would get them back to how they once were. The fabric had worn clean through. The shoes were ready to say goodbye.

It was time to let them go.

This was harder than I wanted to admit. After all, these were shoes, right? Shoes. It wasn’t like a dog had died, or a marriage had ended. And yet, I felt the end of these shoes more keenly than I did the end of my first marriage. These Tevas knew me. They went where I wanted to go, loved what I loved, felt what I felt.

But yesterday, they would go no further. We’d reached the end of the road.

The end of these shoes cut so deep that I found myself, at 10 o’clock last night, talking to my (new and so much better) husband about them and what they meant to me. (This husband, I should note, will go to the Keys with me on a moment’s notice, which is not the only thing one should look for in a life partner but trust me, it’s a great start.) After listening to me for a minute, this man – who knows my turning-30-origin-story and yet listens to it every time like it’s brand new – simply said, “You should frame them.”

I paused, then asked, “You mean like a shadow box?”

“Yes,” he said. “They’re important. They mean something.”

He’s not wrong.

And so, my friends, tomorrow, I will take my sand-crusted, beloved water shoes to the frame shop, and I will get them framed. Because these shoes – these $68 dollar shoes that cost me a marriage and gave me so much – deserve a hero’s ending.

Today, I’m so much more than my water shoes. Of course I am. What woman describes her life in shoes? But still, I feel compelled to not let these shoes pass without paying homage to what they’ve meant me. They’ve been my freedom, my solace, and my salvation.

I realize this sounds like a Teva ad, but rest assured, it isn’t. What it is is a testament to the water shoes that watched me shed a life that didn’t fit me and rediscover the person I was meant to be.

I figured they would last five years, and that worked out to $13.60 per year, or a little more than a dollar every month.

In the end, they lasted 21 years and one month, which means they cost me 27¢ a month.

In the end, if they’d cost 100 times that, they would have been worth it.

10 Things Most People Never Do in the Florida Keys

My Annual Keys Trip

The first time I traveled to the Florida Keys, I was 19 and it was a school field trip. The moment US 1 opened up onto the teal water – there’s a high and dry there now, so you can’t see the water as soon – I felt like everything, for the first time, made sense. A few years later, I married a man who was not right for me when I was far too young to do so. He hated the Keys. He promised me a trip there every year and it was only the last year of our marriage that we made it there. He was miserable and even told me, “I think we just want different things out of life.”

Months after we separated, the first thing I did was point my purple Toyota south towards the Keys, with my kayak on top of my car and my bike inside it. I paddled and biked and breathed the salt air and promised myself I’d never go a year again without visiting the Florida Keys.

Since then, except for one year when Hurricane Irma made traveling there impossible, I’ve done that – often more than once. So far this year, I’ve visited twice. Do I want to live there? Probably not. But I cherish the time I spend there. Want some travel tips that take you beyond the typical tourist experience? I can’t promise to show you the Keys like a local, but I can tell you about some places to see, things to do, and restaurants to try that take you beyond the typical Florida Keys experience. Here are my top 10 things most people never do in the Florida Keys:

10. Take the Card Sound Bridge in to the Keys. Bonus points if you’ve read Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen and know why I mention this book.

9. Stop at Alabama Jacks on the Card Sound Bridge. Think it’s a dive bar? I won’t argue. But before you slide into the Florida Keys, nothing beats stopping here for a cold drink or a burger on the water. You’re still in the Everglades and also in the Florida Keys.

8. Buy seafood at Key Largo Fisheries. I have friends who live a few islands down – and they drive up here for seafood. It’s a seafood market that has a cafe, so even if you’re not sleeping somewhere with a kitchen or grill, you can still get a taste.

A neon sign reading "Flynn's" over a Tron video game
Bayside Gourmet definitely has everything an ’80s kid could want.
Cathy Salustri

7. Play Tron at Bayside Gourmet. I don’t know how I missed this place except I just didn’t notice it until a local suggested I grab lunch there. It’s a Gen X kid’s dream, and the food’s good, too. (And I believe the games have free play.)

6. Take advantage of the ranger-led activities in a state park. On our last visit, we had a free guided tour of the waters and mangrove tunnels around Curry Hammock State Park. Every state park – Pennekamp, Windley Key, Long Key, Curry Hammock, and Bahia Honda come to mind immediately, but there are many others in the Keys – has rangers available for questions, and most (if not all) have free hikes, talks, or paddles with those rangers. No one knows the outdoors in the Florida Keys better than the state park rangers; take advantage of this.

5. Eat at El Siboney on Stock Island. Yes, yes, there’s one in Key West. Don’t bother with the crowds; the last time I ate at the Stock Island restaurant, I believe my group were the only tourists in the building. It’s delicious.

4. Get your groceries somewhere other than Publix. Yes, I know it’s the place where shopping is a pleasure, but the Florida Keys is one of the few places that actually has some decent grocery stores (not supermarkets!). Try the family-owned Trading Post in Islamorada, Marathon Liquor and Deli in Marathon, and, of course, Fausto’s in Key West.

a yellow plate of fish, French fries, and cole slaw
I ate the best cole slaw of my life at Geiger Key Marina.
Cathy Salustri

3. Try the cole slaw at Geiger Key Marina. I’m obsessed with the stuff, and I’m not exactly a huge cole slaw fan. I’m not sure what, exactly, they use to make it, but I’m doing my best to replicate it back home.

2.  Hike at Curry Hammock State Park. The hike isn’t in the part of the park most people use – it’s a short walk off a small parking area off US 1 maybe a mile south of the park’s entrance on the bay side. It’s relatively short – something like 1.5 miles – but it goes over some uneven terrain. The reward is your private vista of the water.

1. Paddle to Indian Key – and then take in its history. This island is easily seen from US 1 near Robbie’s, but the times I’ve paddled out there, I’ve seen precious few people. Perhaps they don’t realize this tiny island has quite a history: At one time, it was the Dade County seat. It’s a ghost town now (and a state park) and, if you’re into snorkeling, word has it there’s some pretty good snorkeling on the far side of the island.

No doubt, I’ve missed a lot – as I’ve said, I’m not local, and I know I’ll have more in future posts. Hopefully, if you’re here and you’ve read my stuff for a while, these aren’t all new to you. And hey, if you have a place you think I’d love down there (or anywhere in Florida), drop me a note and tell me about it!