Friday, January 30, 2009

Greetings from Florida!

That's what it says on those classic post cards from the 1950s, so consider this to be an updated version of that old chestnut.

John here...

Yes, the Gypsies have finally made it to the Sunshine State, and while there has been some sunshine -- and you're probably all tired of hearing us moan about it -- it's not exactly warm here in the charming border town of Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island. Thankfully, the people here are as warm as can be.

We found that out when we dinghied in from our mooring in the middle of the Amelia River, which serves as the natural border between Georgia and Florida. First stop was a little place called the Palace Saloon, which is billed as the oldest tavern in Florida.
The place had precisely the kind of down-home funk we like in a bar, and when Buzz the bartender offered to hold off ringing up our beers until happy hour began 30 minute later, our faith in human nature was reaffirmed yet again.

We asked about ordering some food, but as Buzz explained, "We stopped doing food about five years ago. We're just a saloon now."

It didn't take long for some of the regulars to come over and welcome us. That welcome included a harmonica serenade from a local character named Felix,
and another gentleman who basically adopted us. His name was Ken, a proud Vietnam vet and an equally proud resident of Fernandina Beach since 1960. After a few rounds -- including the Palace Saloon's famed "Pirate's Punch" complete with a collectible plastic cup -- Ken offered to show us the island and bring us to his private club. The five of us piled into his SUV and after the grand driving tour -- one in which he showed us his "heat," those being the two hand-guns he had in the car -- we pulled up to the Kraft Athletic Club and gazed upon a staggeringly beautiful sunset over the marsh.
The view was just as good from inside the club, which was a modest place akin to what our Manchester friends would compare to the Raphael Club.

Ken's sister Rosemary was behind the bar, where the top-priced beer was a mere two bucks. Because we were with Ken, we were greeted like old friends and the best part was, without him noticing, we managed to pick up the tab. It was the least we could do in return for his hospitality, and after he dropped us off back in town, we raced toward Pablo's Mexican restaurant -- remember, the Palace did away with food five years ago -- and ate like we'd never eaten before.

One of Ken's many tips was to try breakfast at a place called T-Rays, and we obliged on Saturday morning. It's based in an old Exxon station, and even though there isn't so much as a single sign outside,
we still had to wait in line to order our meals. They were truly southern-style -- eggs, grits, biscuits, bacon and sausage -- and we dined while surrounded by college football memorabilia, gas station ephemera and a little boy decked out in full camo gear. Yes, we're in the south.

Doug and Tammy had work to do on the boat, so Colleen and I explored Fernandina Beach by foot. We got to see Christmas carolers performing at historic southern homes,
we got to visit the local farmer's market and we came upon the annual Christmas Dog Parade, which, forgive me, was a howl.

Later, when we were poking around a little store called Fred's, we ran into two of our old friends, Brett and Jill, whom we had met at the Alligator River Marina a few weeks back. We agreed to meet at the Palace -- a great surprise for Tammy and Doug -- and proceeded to party the afternoon away.
Given the Palace's food policy, by mid-afternoon, we headed to another local spot called the Green Turtle Tavern, and we struck gold again. We had the Florida-Alabama game on the flat-screen, smoky chili in Styrofoam cups and $3 pints of Longboard Ale.

Oysters were the only thing missing, but not for long. One of the regulars asked Stan the bartender if he could roast some oysters on the outside grill, and soon enough, the roasters -- Sean, and his girlfriend, Allison -- were shucking warm oysters for us. From then on, it was messy but satisfying self-service. I don't know how many I ate, but Sean had to make another oyster run to see us through the night, which also included take-out pizza on the deck.

Great people, great food, great day.

At the moment, it's Sunday morning and we're busy bouncing about on our mooring ball -- the Amelia River's rocking a bit -- before we head back in for one more day at Fernandina Beach. Tomorrow, with all of Florida beckoning to the south, we set out for St. Augustine.

It may just be the stuff of legend, but that's where Doug and I intend to seek out Ponce de Leon's fabled Fountain of Youth.

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