I had a perfect vacation in June. Thirty-six hours where everything fell into place, parking spots opened up like magic, meals were delicious, and the stars aligned.

Okay, the stars part might be hyperbole. But the weather was ideal and the tourist gods were definitely on our side.

So it started when my friend S (mentioned previously in blogs of our Belize trip) flew out from CA. We spent a couple days playing tourist in Orlando. We went out for Korean food, wandered around downtown Winter Park, rode the Orlando Eye (a giant Ferris wheel which would have been a lot more interesting if Orlando during the daytime wasn’t just a sea of parking lots), Sea Life (an aquarium in the same complex), the Skeleton Museum (super-cool, with many, many bones) and Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. It was a veritable binge of touristing and really quite fun. And it set the tone for our trip within her trip. We were going to tourist and tourist hard.

We knew from the start that our little trip to Key West was going to be super quick — only two nights there, with a drive of about eight hours each way. Because of my food issues, I wanted a place to stay with a kitchen so we were booked for our two nights at Suite Dreams. We got there and it was perfect — small, cozy, tucked away, lush with flowers. But we dumped our stuff and started exploring immediately, discussing (ha, finally!) what we wanted to do on our island vacation.

All the things? Yep. Or at least all the things that could be packed into 36 hours. So we went straight to the Southernmost point of the continental US. Honestly, on the map, it really did not seem to be the farthest south spot and it turns out it’s not! But close enough. Then we wandered by Hemingway’s house before walking around Duval Street talking about dinner. In my preconceived notions, slight as they were, I had pictured Duval Street as being something like Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Maybe it is sometimes, but not, apparently, at 7PM on a Tuesday in June. It was very mellow and peaceful. Because of my food problems, I’d already spent a while looking at restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor and found one that sounded great, except we needed reservations which we didn’t have. But hey, Tuesday in June, worth a try, right? We tried, got three seats at the bar, and ate incredible tapas at Santiagos.

I took pictures of the menu to remind myself later of the best food, but the easy winner was dates stuffed with goat cheese, wrapped in prosciutto, and grilled. We got it on our first round and liked it so much we had it a second time as a dessert. On our way home on Thursday, we stopped and picked up some goat cheese, and at 9PM, before we’d been home twenty minutes, I was stuffing dates. I’ve made them three times so far and still haven’t mastered them, but I intend to. (And yes, I’m allergic to cheese, but I’m willing to pay the price for these–they’re sweet, tangy, salty perfection.)

Back to Key West — stuffed and replete with delicious food, we headed back to Suite Dreams and Suzanne and I got serious about planning out our one complete day in Key West. One day is not a lot of time. All the things is an awful lot of things. Plus transportation between things, plus appropriate meal breaks… and possibly we shouldn’t have left our planning to the day before? But by the time we turned the lights off, we had a detailed schedule planned, including meals.

Our morning started with a kayaking Eco Tour with Lazy Dog Adventures. Perfect weather for kayaking and a lovely place for it. We got to see a surprising number of sea creatures, from sea cucumbers to jellyfish, plus birds galore. The kayaking was my pick — the thing I most wanted to do — and I loved it. If that had been all we did, it still would have been an amazing trip. But we weren’t even close to done!

Next we headed to Half Shell Raw Bar. R’s thing was oysters so I asked the tour guide on our kayak trip which of the two places we’d found she’d recommend. Half Shell sold local oysters, so we went there. The menu didn’t have a lot to offer a gluten-free eater, but we got 2 dozen oysters on the half shell, shared between us, and then I ate a side of veggies and a side of coleslaw while R and S ate po’boys that looked delicious. The restaurant was right on the water, with a picnic tables & fish nets ambiance, so also a fun environment.

After lunch, we went grocery-shopping. Weird, right? But we’d decided to have dinner in, both because no restaurant was going to top our Santiago’s experience and because our evening plans meant we’d be looking for dinner around 9. At the recommendation of our morning tour guide, we stopped at the Eaton Street Seafood Market. Great people there, plus a gluten-free single serving cheesecake! We wound up buying porgy (a fish I’d never heard of, much less eaten), a bottle of sauvignon blanc, the cheesecake for me and the cutest little tray of cupcakes for the gluten-eaters.

We needed to get our fish back to the hotel fridge, which then gave us a short window of time before heading out for our evening adventure. R thought about trying to find the beach, but we didn’t really have enough time, so he hung out in the room and S and I relaxed in the small hotel pool.

Next up, we strolled across the island to Sebago Water Sports for a sunset sail and snorkel trip. I still couldn’t tell you whether the kayaking or the sailing was the highlight of my trip. Partly it was because it was such perfect weather. I love sailing, but you know, sometimes the sun beats down and you get a headache. Sometimes it’s windy and you spend the whole time eating your hair and wishing you’d remembered your sunglasses. Sometimes it’s just that hint of chilly where you’re not cold enough to complain but you’re not comfortable either. And sometimes, you’re out on the ocean, surrounded by blue and beauty and the expanse of sea and sky, and you remember that the world holds magic. This trip was the latter. At least for me. Poor S gets seasick with incredible discretion — she doesn’t even turn green, just leans over the side, pukes, turns back around and resumes the conversation. And the snorkeling and sunset were seriously so good that it could have been an ad for the experience — big fish, colorful fish, warm water, gorgeous sky, green flash. It was magic, really.

After the sun set and we returned to shore, we wandered back to the hotel. I cooked the fish — sauteed in butter rescued from our lunchtime bread plates and sprinkled with take-out salt & pepper that our lunch waitress had kindly found for me — while Suzanne made the salad. I think I’ll find the picture, because it was ridiculously gorgeous and beyond delicious.

salad and fish dinner

The salad includes mixed greens, mango, strawberries, radishes, and avocado.

The next day, we wandered around a little bit more, then hopped in the car and drove home, stopping at the Key Deer Nature Preserve and taking a short hike (although the only deer we saw was by the side of the road, not in the preserve), checking out one of the sandal outlets that were everywhere, and eating lunch in Key Largo, the highlight of which was grilled shrimp wrapped in basil and prosciutto. We got home around 9, so really it was a 60-hour vacation if you include the drive. But the 36 hours actually in Key West were wonderful. Really just the kind of magic that you always want a vacation to be and that it never, ever, ever is.

Once home, stuff happened, life got a wee bit exciting, and two days later, I hopped on a plane to Pennsylvania, but that’s another story.