Friday, July 20, 2018

Reliving the old-school charms of Islamorada

Seeing Bloodline return to Netflix on Memorial Day weekend is nothing short of perfection.

For me, visiting Islamorada, the real-life location for the show, over this three-day weekend was a childhood tradition on par with Santa on Christmas Eve. Although I remember a few Novembers driving south on the Florida Turnpike with a turkey and trimmings in a squeaky Styrofoam cooler and several Julys with fireworks in a duffle, the end of May — with temperatures not yet sizzling — was the best time for us to head down from my hometown of Fort Lauderdale.

Earlier this year, high school friends decided to hold a reunion in Islamorada. From my current home in Tampa Bay, my husband, daughter and I headed to Broward County on a Thursday, staying overnight with family, and on Friday morning, we made the two-hour trek to the Upper Keys.

I'm happy to report that although favorite childhood spots have morphed through the decades, old-school charm is alive and well in Islamorada, touted as the sport fishing capital of the world, known in equal parts for its aqua blue water, coral reefs and (here's my favorite fact for all those Keys newbies) sunrises and sunsets. In the morning, you can enjoy an Atlantic Ocean sunrise, and hours later, take a jaunt across the Overseas Highway to see a glorious Keys sunset over Florida Bay.

Here are the highlights of our journey.

Alabama Jacks

58000 Card Sound Road, Homestead

A Keys vacation does not begin until our car veers left off Highway 1 in Homestead and heads south on Card Sound Road to Alabama Jacks. Founded in 1947, the open-air restaurant sits next to the Card Sound Bridge toll booth just before Key Largo. It's known for its lima bean soup, conch fritters and the red-winged blackbirds that visit your table.

It seems appropriate my Welcome Wagon to the Keys is seen in the first episode of Bloodline. It's used in a scene with Danny, who is pondering his existence while eating alone. He is at Alabama Jacks' bar, decorated with dozens of old license plates collected by management over the decades.

I remember as a 16-year-old, talking to my brother, a.k.a. Bonefish Willy, near the same spot. A new Jimmy Buffett song played on the jukebox. "You know it's true,'' said Bonefish Willy, with all the teenage cool he could muster. "Whenever I get on a boat I do have a change in attitude when there's a change in latitude.''

"Poser,'' I probably said.

Islander Resort, Guy Harvey Outpost

82100 Overseas Highway, Islamorada

Near the Whale Harbor Channel, I reverted back to childhood, impatient to get to the Islander, a 60-year-old resort founded by Leo Samuels, a retired Chicago lawyer and avid fisherman. "I hope they kept the sign,'' I told my daughter. "Watch for the giant sign.''

Near Mile Marker 82, she saw it: the funky metal triangular sign touting ISLANDER. "We're here!'' she exclaimed.

As we checked in and made our way to our villa, we recognized two things. First, the influence of Guy Harvey, the wildlife artist and conservationist, cannot be denied. In 2013, the current owner, David Curry, partnered with Harvey and rebranded the Islander as a Guy Harvey Outpost. Renovations to the 23-acre property include updated guest rooms and suites, new banquet facilities, a new gift shop and the Guy Harvey Beachside Bar and Grill next to the pool. And, of course, Guy Harvey artwork is everywhere — parking lots, bedroom walls and even bedspreads.

However, despite the element of commercialism brought with the branding, we also recognized that the Islander, with its old-style kitchenettes and screened porches, and the preservation of the beach and pier, is still a place where wild, sea-loving family nirvana can be found.

Soon after arrival, dear friends picked us up for a boat ride on their 16-foot Hewes. As we cruised near the shore, memories came easily. There was Bonefish Willy, taking my sister and me out on our family's boat, Warderick, to snorkel on Hen and Chickens, a cluster of reefs not too far from the Islander. There was my dad with me on his shoulders on a midnight walk with so many stars shining in the sky that I got dizzy. ("Look out there at that ocean, Pipes. That's where the pirates used to be,'' he told me.) There's my little sister, the Energizer bunny, fishing at dawn on the pier. My mom is sitting on a bench nearby, drinking her morning coffee.

In Bloodline, the Islander can be recognized in several scenes, including the tense, game-changing Rayburn Pier dedication. (Think stressed-out guys in seersucker.) "As a whole, I think the series has nailed it right on how life is in the Keys,'' said Islander concierge Tammie Gurgiolo, who grew up in the area. "And the cast members have become part of the community. When Kyle Chandler is here, he's at restaurants. He's read books at elementary school. He fits right in.''

Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar

81924 Overseas Highway

Our reunion was a lunch held at the Lorelei, a bayside establishment walking distance from the Islander. Our meal included snapper tacos, crab claws and talk of Bloodline. "You know, I feel like Kevin is somebody we knew when we were kids,'' said a former classmate. "A friend? Heck, I think he and Danny were in my own family,'' said another.

I remember visiting the property many times in the early 1970s. Back then it was a tiny bait shop with a boat ramp and an endless supply of feral cats. It was a place Bonefish Willy and Dad would launch Warderick for our family to explore Islamorada's backcountry.

The modern-day Lorelei was created about 27 years ago, when a group of outdoor enthusiasts, including Major League baseball manager Davey Johnson, joined forces, according to general manager John Maloughney.

"That corporate group asked me to come down and start the restaurant in 1989, and I did, and I thought I'd stay for a year or two, but I've never left,'' he said.

Over the years, the business has grown to become renowned for its seafood as well as the fishing tournaments it hosts, including the exclusive Don Hawley Invitational Tarpon Tournament held in June.

The Lorelei is in several Bloodline episodes. "Mostly it's in the background. You can see our docks. We have 30 charter fishermen who dock here,'' Maloughney said. "The show has brought Islamorada together in a way.''

Robbie's Marina

77522 Overseas Highway

A confession: Before this year, I had never been to Robbie's. However, at the reunion, my friend recommended it for its unique activity: tarpon feeding. "What? You've never done the completely touristy thing and fed the tarpons at Robbie's? You've got to do it.''

And so we did. My husband held the bait bucket as Sofia laid down on the dock. Each time a tarpon leaped out of the water for the snack in her hands, she'd yell. Later, when we got home, it was my turn to yell. As I watched Bloodline a second time, I spotted Danny with his bad-boy buddy Eric on a boat. "Look! They're docked at Robbie's!''

Kayak excursion, the Moorings Village & Spa (a.k.a. the Rayburn House)

123 Beach Road

The water was flat, and there was not a cloud in the sky, except the cloud of despair, knowing it was almost time to leave Islamorada. Before we checked out, however, we took a morning paddle. We launched from the Islander. "We have to see the Rayburn House,'' I said.

About four piers south of the Islander, the Moorings, a former coconut plantation, is easy to identify from the water because of the beach with the perfectly curved palm trees often seen on the show. As we got close to the pier, my husband saw me pull out my camera. "Piper, you're going to get the camera wet,'' he said.

"Come on. Just one picture,'' I whispered. "Get closer. I think that's the Bloodline boat.''

I focused on trying to get a picture, while my husband kept a lookout.

We lasted one second.

"Oh great, here comes Danny Rayburn," joked the husband.

I slipped the camera away. I waved at a man in a white uniform jogging toward us on the pier.

I smiled. "Hello,'' I said.

"We don't encourage people to do what you are doing,'' the guard said.

My husband turned the kayak around. We began rowing our way toward home.

Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.

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