Florida Keys after Hurricane Irma

This trip to Florida was essentially un-planned, so we had no reservations other than one we made in Key West a year ago.  We had made the reservation because we could cancel it without penalty, so why not?  Now, although Key West isn’t actually our favorite destination on the planet, it’s not so bad in February so to-Key-West-we-will-go.

The Keys were hit hard by Hurricane Irma last fall and we were curious about how they had fared.  While we knew Key West was spared the worst of Irma, the middle Keys were reportedly hammered.  Evidence was apparent even in Key Largo, where we passed empty lots that had become depositories for boats and trailers and other debris that had been damaged or destroyed.  img_6824Along Overseas Highway we passed lot after lot that had been razed and bulldozed.  In some cases, debris was piled high on the lots, or even dumped along the roadside, yet to be trucked away.

As we proceeded west down Route 1, damage increased and work crews were evident everywhere, on public works projects, commercial developments and private homes.  A lot had already been done, but clearly it will take some time for full recovery.

img_6841-1Sombrero Beach, a neighborhood on Marathon, was badly damaged.  The lovely little beach was in use, but there were huge sandpiles everywhere and brand new housing was obvious.

img_6813-1The worst area we saw was around Big Pine Key, just west of Seven Mile Bridge.  Whole blocks of homes appeared to have been bulldozed, and others were obviously struggling to recover.  img_6855Gutted and destroyed mobile homes and boats were lying along the side of the main highway, apparently dumped there by the storm or pushed off the road and left by work crews.  Roofs up and down the key were weather-proofed by sturdy bright blue tarps, still waiting repair.

img_6763Our campground, Boyds on Stock Island, looked great, but they had obviously lost a large number of the lovely tall palms which had provided shade.  The staff talked about the enormous amount of work to remove tons of debris.  Some Key West resorts appeared to be recently renovated, but most were open.  Timg_6775he main harbor on the north side of the island was in good shape, although one or two piers had sustained significant damage and were being re-built.  There was a large amount of debris still piled on the breakwater, including large chunks broken-up boats, coolers, and furniture.  img_6863Sunset Pier was open for business, but most of the pier was damaged and closed off.   Duval Street was business-as-usual, with no sign of the hurricane at all.

While in Key West, we enjoyed a number of our favorite restaurants and watering holes, especially Roostica, near our campground on Stock Island.  We walked around Duval Street, neighborhoods, and Schooner Wharf, enjoying the scenes, but limited ourselves because the dogs can only take so much of the heat.

img_6792We also did some scouting for our trip next year, which we plan to make by boat!  We made a reservation for a slip at The Galleon Marina, right under the breakwater, where we will be in the heart of Key West but slightly removed from the nighttime craziness.  There were two American Tugs there when we visited.  A big adventure to look forward to!

 

On The Road Again with Bambi

We weren’t going to do it. We had a big year last year, were away for roughly six months total, and figured we had a lot to accomplish at home. But then the Great Deep Freeze happened over the holidays and that was that. Let’s go find someplace warm.

We targeted January 29 – 30 for our departure, but Mother Nature struck again. Looking at the developing weather patterns, it became clear that if we didn’t get out by the 28th we weren’t going to get out until spring. So we had a mad panic of packing and organizing, hit the road early in the morning on the 28th, and enjoyed a warm, damp, trouble-free ride out of New England, across New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, then down I-81 along the Blue Ridge Mountains, just ahead of a dandy winter storm.

Our first destination was the Great Smoky Mountains in Eastern Tennessee. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Knoxville and the Smoky Mountains National Park are excellent fun and we always enjoy our little Campground, Riveredge, right on the Little Pigeon River at the base of the Parkway.

For those who have never been to Pigeon Forge, it can be a jaw-dropping experience. The first time we went there we were expecting a small Tennessee town at the base of a National Park, which to us meant a certain amount of civilization associated with the natural beauty of the nearby mountain wilderness.

IMG_6675How wrong we were. Pigeon Forge, it seems, is a whole-hearted rejection of all things remote, rugged and natural, driven by the desperation of parents with kids starved by their woodland adventures in the National Park for modern conveniences and crazy diversions.  img_6679-1There were buildings built to resemble mansions tipped upside down. A full-sized Titanic plowed into a fake iceberg along the side of an eight-lane traffic nightmare. IMG_6680King Kong swinging from a skyscraper. And that was just the start. Dollyville, of course. And endless blocks of mini-golf, amusement rides, shopping strip malls, every chain food restaurant imagineable, and 6000-room resorts all built to look like log cabins. Oh my.

Our little campground was an oasis in the midst of all this, and thanks to the time of year, we were one of just three campers there overnight. It was very pleasant and the pups enjoyed sniffing about among the empty campsites.

IMG_6711One of our objectives each visit to the area is to join the Thursday Lunch Barhounds at Calhouns on the River in Knoxville.
On our first trip through Tennessee we ended up there by accident, looking for some good BBQ, and stumbled on this very friendly bunch of natives and their trusty bartender Jennifer.  IMG_6714Unfortunately the weather derailed our schedule this year so we showed up on a Tuesday, but we were not to be disappointed.  IMG_6715Mike was there waiting for us even on the wrong day!  New friend Jim and pals joined the crowd (by next year Bruce will have mastered the cork finger puzzle), and bartender Derek, who was in for the flu-struck Jennifer, took excellent care of us all.  We had such fun we’re going to try to do it again on the way home.

The rest of our visit included poking around Gatlinburg, a small mountain town at the entrance to the Smoky Mountains National Park which probably started out as the last town park visitors stocked up in before hiking up into the wilderness, but is now a crazy destination of its own, a cross between alpine village, Pigeon Forge, Vegas and Tennessee Moonshine.  Almost as head-turning as Pigeon Forge.  We like walking the streets and have found a few decent restaurants among the chain-restaurants and ubiquitous pancake houses.  I guess if you visit the mountains in Tennessee, you have to eat stacks of pancakes every day, all three meals.  Who knew?

img_6727Normally we like to end our visit by driving straight across the Smoky Mountains via Newfound Gap Road.  Sometimes during the winter the road is closed due to snow and ice, and alas, so it was this year.  img_6734-1We decided to go west-around the mountains via the Foothills Parkway road, which was actually quite lovely and I don’t think we saw more than three other vehicles the entire time.  It was a delightful ride.

Next stop: Florida.