We drove down to Key West on the Thursday before the Mystery Fest Key West conference began. Once you hit the Keys beyond Miami and Homestead, you pass interesting little towns on each island along with scenic ocean vistas on either side of the highway. On Ramrod Key, we stopped for lunch at Boondocks. Their creamy New England clam chowder was one of the best. I liked the crabmeat salad and cole slaw that accompanied the soup. A half portion of salad was more than enough.
After arriving in Key West, we checked in at the Doubletree Grand Key Resort and then took the hotel shuttle into town. Here we meandered around until our friends Alyssa Maxwell and her husband joined us for dinner. We dined at Conch Republic Seafood Company. Richard and I shared stuffed mushrooms and grilled mahi mahi. We were as stuffed as the mushrooms when we’d finished.
Friday morning, we were free, so we visited the East Martello Museum, a Civil War era fort. Exhibits tell about how the fort was used during the war as well as a bit of Key West lore including ghost stories and the creepy Robert the Doll tale. Doll houses, a treasure chest, and a cannon were among the relics displayed. Then we went outside toward the tower where a spiral staircase takes you to the top. Here are some scenic views.
Hungry from our exertions, we drove into town and lunched at Pinchers Crab Shack on Duval Street. Then it was back to the hotel for the start of the conference.
Located on Marathon in the Florida Keys, this 63-acre hidden oasis has nature trails, a tram ride, historical houses, and a nature museum hidden away near the highway at mile marker 50. We bypassed the orientation film to stroll down the tree-lined paths in a mile-and-a-half loop. If you’re not a walker, you can take the tram instead. We wanted to get in our exercise before the rain clouds moved in. We reached The Point at the end, where we came across a lovely water view of Florida Bay. Crane House is here, built for Francis and Mary Crane in 1954. We didn’t stop to view the Wild Bird Center that rehabilitates rescue birds as we have something similar at Flamingo Gardens in Davie. The Adderley House was the next attraction, built in the early 1900s for Bahamian immigrant, George Adderley. The white structure was made from tabby, a concrete-like mixture of sand, lime, seashells, and water. We peeked inside the bedrooms, the dining area, and the separate kitchen. From here, we headed back on the trail past the Butterfly Meadow and the Cracker House with exhibits and on to the gift shop and museum to cool down. The museum portion houses exhibits on native culture and marine life. Visit http://www.cranepoint.net for more information. See all my Florida Keys Photos Here. Click on Photos and then Albums. Enter Here to win a six-book Beach Reads bundle from Booklover’s Bench authors. Sign up for my Newsletter for my latest book news, giveaways, recipes and events. Free book sampler for new subscribers.
On our way to Mystery Fest Key West, we took the turnpike extension south toward Homestead. Note the Mutineer Restaurant at the corner of SW 344th Street. There’s a Starbucks in this vicinity too. From this junction, you head south. A long, boring stretch of swampland and mangroves follows until you leave mainland Florida. Or you can travel the scenic Card Sound Road that leads to upper Key Largo instead. Then it’s about a three hour drive to Key West. Right before the bridge to Key Largo is Gilbert’s Restaurant. Traffic travels at speeds from thirty-five to fifty-five miles per hour through a series of islands. The scenic wonders will make you glad for the slower pace so you can enjoy the sights along the way. Allow extra time for pit stops and to fill your stomach. It took us five hours total from Fort Lauderdale. State parks abound if you want to stop for a swim or stretch your legs. Key Largo is the first big island after you leave the mainland. Their inviting Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center just past Shell World is a good place to stop and use the restroom. Here also are a Publix and Winn Dixie, where you can grab a snack or use the facilities. There’s even a Starbucks, a rarity in the Keys. Full service restaurants include Fish House, Snappers, Skipper’s Dockside, Conch House, Island Grill, and Sundowners. We ate at the latter on our way home. Admiring a lovely view of the Gulf, we sipped creamy clam chowder in a bread bowl. Or you can take the scenic Card Sound Road instead and stop at Alabama Jack’s, if it still exists. Resorts on Key Largo include a Hilton and a Marriot. There’s a Botanical State Park at the north end. Or, if you like snorkeling or diving, check out John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park with an aquarium, glass-bottom boat tours, museum exhibits, nature trails. On the way home, be sure to stop at the Florida Keys Key Lime Products on the east side of the road past mile marker 97. Good place to pick up some last minute frozen Key Lime pies, lime barbecue sauce, salsa, and other products. On Tavernier are a Winn Dixie, Dairy Queen, CVS drug store, Dunkin Donuts, Chevron and Shell gas stations. Islamorada is a popular weekend retreat. Stop by Hooked on Books at 81909 Overseas Highway and browse the bookshelves. Numerous restaurants claim their fame here: Islamorada Fish Company, Marker 88, Island Grill, Hog Heaven, Pierre’s Restaurant, Wahoo’s Bar and Grille, and Shula’s 2. The Postcard Inn, Amara Cay Resort, and the Chesapeake Resort look like nice hotels. From here, it’s two hours more to Key West. There’s a Visitor Center if you need a pit stop. Tourist attractions include Theater of the Sea, a marine mammal park with exhibits, animal shows, beach, grill, gift shop; and a History of Diving Museum with exhibits and gift shop. Look for a Starbucks before Whale Harbor Channel bridge. Marathon has a Publix and Winn Dixie, Walgreens, IHOP, gas stations and fast food places, the Island Fish Company restaurant, along with another visitor center. There’s Crane Point Museum and Nature Center with historic home, nature trails, tram ride, gift shop; and a Turtle Hospital with 90 min. tour and gift shop. if you’re looking for places to explore. Further along on Grassy Key is a Dolphin Research Center. We made it to Marathon three hours after leaving home but traffic was slow on I-75 due to construction. Big Pine Key has a gas station if you need it. We stopped for lunch at Boondocks Grille at Ramrod Key around mile marker 28 on our way south. This restaurant opens for lunch at 11am. They have good clam chowder, sandwiches and salads, and a nicer gift shop than most of the souvenir stores in Key West. Pigeon Key has a visitor center and a Sunset Grille and Raw Bar. When you hit Key West, you face Roosevelt Boulevard going in two directions. Heading to the left will take you to a bunch of hotels and Southernmost Point. This latter is Mile Marker 0 on our country’s east coast and is 90 miles from Cuba. The opposite direction will take you past strip shopping centers, fast food restaurants, more hotels, and into downtown. Duval Street hosts bars, restaurants, and gift shops. During the day, stroll along and soak up the tropical ambiance. Visit Hemingway House, Truman’s Little White House, Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, historical sites, and more. Take a ride on the Conch Train. Charter fishing, glass bottom boat rides, and various other boat tours are available. Or stroll along the Historic Seaport District for a number of waterfront restaurants by the marina. We’ve eaten at Alonso’s Raw Bar and Conch Republic at Harborside, and also Schooner Wharf. Here we saw a cook chopping up fish to feed to the sea life. At night, check out Mallory Square for street performers and a blazing sunset. Things come alive on Duval Street in the evening, when hordes of visitors ply the cafés and bars where live singers entertain the crowds. We recommend our favorite restaurant, Louie’s Backyard. This historic site faces the Atlantic Ocean and is a great place to enjoy fine dining. Prices can be expensive, but if you’re on a budget, just order an appetizer or share a meal. At the Upper Deck wine bar on the second level, you can get small bites if you don’t feel like a full meal. Come to the Keys to decompress. With its slower pace of life, it’ll help you relax. There’s only one negative. It’s hard to leave this island and return to reality. See my Photos Here. Click on Photos and then Albums. Sign up for my Newsletterfor my latest book news, giveaways, workshops, and events. Free book sampler for new subscribers.
The last panel of the day at Mystery Writers Key West Fest was on Crime in the Florida Keys. Panelists included Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsey, Key West PD Chief Donie Lee, U.S. Coast Guard Captain (ret.) Jim Filton, true crime writer and journalist Terry Schmida, and Jim Linder from the Joint Interagency Task Force (ret.). Moderator was radio news director Bill Becker.
The report that follows is based on my interpretation of what I heard. Any errors are mine alone.
In the 80’s and 90’s, most crimes involved drug smuggling of cocaine and marijuana via boats. Now it’s alien smuggling. Often the instigators will steal a “go-fast” boat and charge the migrants $10,000 per head to smuggle them ashore. Once a Cuban refugee touches U.S. soil, they can stay. Today there’s also an influx of Miami-based crime such as burglaries and prescription drug abuse plus related crimes by addicts who need to buy their fix. There are more online crimes with credit card fraud and sexual predators.
Another panelist spoke about “amusing” crimes in Key West, such as the case of a cat abduction and custody battle over the animal. “The Keys have crimes that you can’t make up.” But serious crime is rare. It’s normal for law enforcers to greet crooks at the bar. He told more illegal migrant stories. Other crimes might involve animals or a piece of machinery being used in an unexpected manner.
Fantasy Fest is ten days long and about 80,000 people come down to Key West for this event. It’s difficult to police. People have sex in the streets, roam without their clothes on, do stuff here they’d never do at home. For example, there was the airline pilot who stole a pizza car because he was hungry. A bank robber was caught because he gave away $2 bills at a strip bar.
We heard about the ingenious vehicles that migrant smugglers used to cross the water from Cuba, like cars and trucks. When the Coast Guard approached one car plying the waves, the miscreants rolled up the windows so there wasn’t any way to board. The Coast Guard guy opened the gas cap and poured in sugar. When the vehicle stalled, the occupants surrendered.
Then there was the airplane modified with a bed in back for a “Mile High” club. Two customers tried to hijack the airplane to Cuba. A struggle with the pilot ensued, and he ditched in the ocean. You can read about it here: http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=92667 Since the customers didn’t survive and there wasn’t any paper trail, the speaker questioned the truth of the story. Was it for real or a case of insurance fraud?
Then there’s the “Yamaha Drift.” These are people who claim their boat drifted south toward Cuba. They should know the current doesn’t run south.
Crocodile poaching is another crime in the Keys. The Russian mob may also be an influence. The speakers told about the “gray-haired” burglar and the air smuggler who kept a parrot on his shoulder. Certainly the Keys are home to colorful characters.
We heard many more interesting stories from this panel of experts. After the panel concluded, we trooped to a room near the pool bar for a group book signing.
Rather than attend the noir film at Tropic Cinema, my husband and I opted for dinner at La Trattoria, an Italian restaurant with a water view just down the street from the Doubletree Grand Key Resort.
Last weekend was the inaugural Mystery Writers Key West Fest. The festivities began at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon off infamous Duval Street in downtown Key West. We sat outside while the mayor and a police official greeted us. People came from all over the country to attend this debut event that was organized by Michael Haskins and Shirrel Rhoades. Multiple representatives from Mystery Writers of America Florida Chapter attended. We listened to our musical members play on stage. Authors Heather Graham and Don Bruns took turns entertaining the crowd that included tourists and regulars, as well as our gang of writers.
My husband and I ate dinner at the Smokin’ Tuna. As seven o’clock rolled around, we skipped the subsequent bar hop in favor of an early night. Others went along on a pub crawl to the Hog’s Breath Saloon, Fairvilla Megastore, Pat Croce’s Rum Barrel and the Schooner Wharf Bar. Regretfully missing this event, my husband and I caught the hotel shuttle back to the Doubletree Grand Key Resort. I took some souvenirs home, however: itchy no-see-um bites on my ankles. Remember to wear your bug spray in the evenings.
Early in the morning, I handed over my books to the conference bookseller and put out my bookmarks and pamphlets on the promo table. Then I joined my fellow panelists at 8:30 am for a talk on “Women in Mystery”. Our panel consisted of Sandra Balzo, Nancy J. Cohen, Miriam Auerbach, Carla Norton and Heather Graham. Moderator was Jeremiah Healy.
The next panel was on the “Importance of Getting Locale Right” with Jonathan Woods, Hal Howland, Robert Coburn, Michael Haskins and moderated by Sandra Balzo.
A buffet lunch featuring prime ribs followed with guest speaker William E. Butterworth IV (W.E.B. Griffin) on writing: “Each time you build a cabinet, it gets better. We’re cabinet builders. The first time, it’s a little crooked. Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing.”
Interruptions and the anticipation of interruptions can lead to writer’s block. Every day, you have to sit down and write until you get enough done.
Does it get any easier? “No, it’s extremely difficult. You have to be focused, and you never stop working.”
After lunch, we listened to “Writing the Series” with Don Bruns, Mike Dennis, Heather Graham, Jeremiah Healy and moderated by Carla Norton.
This was followed by a panel on ePublishing with Neil S. Plakcy, Shirrel Rhoades, Wayne Gales, Sheri Lohr and moderated by Mark Howel.
Neil said about piracy: “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product.” In other words, it’s your info that is being collected when you illegally download pirated books.