Category Archives: Florida Keys

Florida Keys Thanksgiving, American Crocodiles, and Sharks

Feet and legs in a white hammock with the sea in the background for Florida Keys Thanksgiving
No turkey in sight from my hammock. This year we celebrated a Florida Keys Thanksgiving.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

It’s been a hard year. Barry and I started 2023 with four parents, three close uncles, and one longtime-friend; by November 1, we had one parent and one uncle left. Needless to say, neither of us felt like giving thanks at a table with so many empty chairs.

Fortunately for us, Past Cathy — not expecting any of the death that chased summer into fall — had booked us a cottage at our favorite place in the Florida Keys: White Gate Court. We were going to have a Florida Keys Thanksgiving this year.

We did this once before, in 2020. COVID-19 meant we had to cancel our annual May trip to White Gate because everything was (mostly metaphorically) on fire. By November, when they called us to reschedule, we were desperate to get back to the Keys. Since no one was having a big family Thanksgiving that year, we had our first Florida Keys Thanksgiving.

Red dachshund wearing a holiday tie for Florida Keys Thanksgiving
Seeing Fred, White Gate Court’s canine ambassador,  always makes me smile. Here he’s decked out for his Florida Keys Thanksgiving.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I called our Florida Keys Thanksgiving “FloridaKeysGiving.”

That moniker still applies, and, while I’m not sure we’ll do this every year, I wouldn’t complain if we did. We arrived at twilight the Sunday before Thanksgiving, and the sky was streaked with pinks, oranges, and purples. We’d missed sunset — getting out of town took forever — but watching the afterglow as we pulled onto Matecumbe  offered us a magnificent welcome. The first thing we did after we unloaded the car was take a glass of wine down to the water and take a few slow breaths. That’s pretty much all I accomplished Monday, too, which was exactly what I needed.

reef formation that has grown on a step in saltwater in the Florida Keys. Florida Keys Thanksgiving photo
The steps to the water from the beach at White Gate have an entire ecosystem happening.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Tuesday we’d scheduled a half-day fishing charter. The forecasted 11 MPH winds kicked up to about 22, and when we arrived at the dock, the captain offered us a refund. We instead rescheduled for Thanksgiving morning. I spent Tuesday reading in a hammock and trying to convince myself to get in the water.

Wednesday I braved the cold water — it was below 80º and I’m not built that way, usually, but once I submerged myself, the water became more than tolerable. I snorkeled a bit, and finally — after roughly seven years of coming here — caught sight of the resident nurse shark.

My love affair with sharks is well-documented, and those of you who know me will believe me when I tell you I swam up to him. Or, rather, when I tried to swim up to him. He swam away as soon as I started his way, proof that they’re more scared of us than we are of them.

Thanksgiving morning, we went fishing.

That’s probably one of the best sentences ever written about Thanksgiving. On my bucket list: tarpon and bonefish. I’ve never caught either. Of course, this may be because I don’t fish nearly enough and barely know what the hell I’m doing when I do go, which is why it’s always a pleasure to have a great guide.

The last fishing charter I did in the Keys was with Capt. Casey (Sea Monkey Charters), and we fished off — I swear this is true — Dildo Key near Flamingo (do browser history a favor and don’t Google that; here’s a link).  This time, though, we stayed farther down the chain of islands and wanted a charter closer to White Gate.

Until I wrote about Robbie’s for a series of articles about the Florida Keys six months after Irma,  I dismissed the entire enterprise as a tourist clip joint. I was wrong, and that’s another post for another time, but when we wanted a good captain, I asked my friend and fellow Florida-phile Brad Bertelli for help. Every week he hosts a “learn Florida Keys history” at Robbie’s and has never failed to disappoint with his Florida Keys travel suggestions. He suggested Capt. Rich Hastings, and once again, he failed to disappoint.

a live bonefish in a net, caught on Florida Keys Thanksgiving
The bonefish, right before her return to the water. We killed no fish on this trip.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I’ll spare you the cast-by-cast of the fishing charter, but I will say that  as we made our way south from Robbie’s, we passed an American Crocodile in the mangrove cut, I caught a bonnethead shark, and I also caught my first bonefish. If there’s anything that compares to the thrill of catching a bonefish, seeing a croc in the wild is right up there. As for catching the shark? I felt bad. Sharks, as I’ve mentioned, are among my favorite things. The shark — and the bonefish — are, to my knowledge, still swimming happily around the flats where we fished, talking about that time they got away.

Man fishing off skiff for Florida Keys Thanksgiving
Bonefish? Nope. A bewildered and not-at-all-happy stingray.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Fishing isn’t about the fish.

That all said, if I’d caught nothing, it wouldn’t have mattered. The morning started with rain and clouds, but by about 8:30, the sun peeked through and the water reflected the colors of the sky. Fishing is — or should be, at least — a mostly-quiet sport, so in between catching fish, I had plenty of time to watch the water. As I did, I breathed in and out, and remembered that, after a year I could have done without, I still have so many reasons to be thankful.

A small red mangrove surrounded by saltwater; taken during Florida Keys Thanksgiving

Photo by Cathy Salustri

The End of an Era? Key Lime Tree Pie Shop Fire

a pile of rubble by a palm tree
The sad end of a delicious era?
Cathy Salustri

The best things aren’t things, but experiences. What if, though, one of those amazing experiences involves a thing?

One of my favorite Florida Keys traditions has ended, possibly for good. The Key Lime Tree key lime products shop has burned down, and I don’t know if it will reopen.

I first stopped there on the way home from a trip to the former Bay View Inn on Conch Key (it’s now the Conch Key Fishing Lodge and Marina), and after a far-too-long absence from the Keys– (I wrote about that in this post), I wanted extend the saltwater, salt-air vibe for as long as I could. Since moving there wasn’t an option, I went for the next best thing: bringing home a key lime pie.

Knowing nothing about which roadside shop had good key lime pie, I stopped at this one.

It was the best part of the trip.

Every year since (except for 2017 – thanks a lot, Irma), I’ve stopped here to get a pie. When I learned I had celiac, I floundered, but – alas – the shop had gluten-free key lime pies (it’s all about the filling for me, not the crust, anyway.)

a store with a chain link fence around it and rubble on the ground

Cathy Salustri

The first time the man who would become my husband and I traveled to the Keys, I made him stop on the way home to get a pie. He thanked me when he tasted it.

In 2015, Quebec’s TV5 brought me to Islamorada to tape a segment about the human fascination with dolphin. I stopped at the shop on my way home and met the owner. When I told him how long I’d been stopping, he thanked me with a shell necklace that hung around my rearview mirror for years.

For year now, we bring home one, maybe three pies. When we first bought The Gabber Newspaper, we brought home a half pie for every non-vegan member of our staff. (Journalism may not pay much, but we do have pie.)

For a while, we knew where the shop was because of the Don Bailey billboard of an almost-naked carpet salesman. (Uh, if you’re not from South Florida, you may want to read this to understand that.) When the billboard changed – much to my dismay – had to learn the mile marker (95.2)

I’ve been to the Keys twice this year (so far). The first trip, in February, was a group trip I led. My co-leader and I left the Keys late in the evening, and after 10 days of leading a group, neither of us thought about stopping for pie. It was dark, and my mind was on the drive home.

When I returned for a far more leisurely trip in May, the pie shop had a fence around it – and a black charred shell of a building.

A sign for Key Lime Products

Cathy Salustri

I did a little research and found two articles in Keys Weekly, and they painted a picture that overshadowed my own dismay.

First, last fall, the shop had a series of burglaries. Police finally arrested the alleged thief on November 2, 2022, after the shop owner, Violet Wahba, had lost several thousand dollars in merchandise and store fixtures.

Next, on December 15 – not even six weeks after the arrest – a Key Largo resident who lived by the shop called Wahba to tell her the shop was on fire.

These two things, of course, came on the heels of the pandemic, which came less than a year after Wahba bought the shop in March 2019.

Despite all that, it seems Wahba still tries to operate as she can on the property, because there was an A-frame sign outside the fenced-off business suggesting  some operating hours. I’m not sure that’s still the case, but I hope so.

Wahba’s daughter created a Go Fund Me for her mother to help rebuild the shop; in it, she says the fire destroyed not only the building, but $150,000 worth of merchandise (they sell a lot more than pies).

I was shocked to see no one had donated. I sent them $25. It’s not a lot, but I hate to see the end of this iconic stop along US 1 in the Florida Keys.

Until we meet again, Key Lime Tree. I hope it’s soon.

Sign on ground, reading "The Key Lime Tree – Gifts – Baskets – Food Products– Lotions – Skin Care"
I was sorely tempted to take the sign as a moment, but left it in hopes the owners would rebuild.
Cathy Salustri

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!