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Hand Over the Keys

February 24, 2011 By:
Sharon McDonnell, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Big Pine Key boasts beautiful water and wildlife.

One of the best ways to commune with nature in the necklace of 800 or so islands called the Florida Keys is by plying its waterways.

That's why I was kayaking the Key West back country in the still waters of Cow Key Channel with a guide, whose Australian shepherd, Tucker, lay in the front of the boat, only his head visible, like the carved wooden figureheads that once adorned ships.

"We live a lifestyle down here where we always bring our dogs -- to outdoor restaurants, bars, jet-skis. People just started calling us lazy dog kayak guides -- the name stuck," said Sue Cooper, owner of Lazy Dog Adventures, my outfitter.

After our morning exercise, we rewarded ourselves with an outdoor lunch in a marina, the Hogfish Bar & Grill, where I feasted on some of the best fresh seafood I ate in the Keys. Hogfish is the specialty -- a red fish with an ugly pig-like snout, but light, delicate flesh -- caught by spear-fishing.

The bread pudding was unlike any I've had in New Orleans, my adopted city, topped by guava sauce, shredded coconut and coconut rum. It's on the menu because owner Michelle Mongelli's mother's family hails from the New Orleans area.

The next day, another Key, another kayaking expedition, another canine. This time, it was Big Pine Key -- known for its pygmy deer, only 21/2 feet and under 75 pounds, a lot smaller than many dogs in my neighborhood -- Big Pine Kayak, and a yellow Lab, Scupper, who either stood majestically on the boat's prow or lolled his head on the side, a "been here, done that" expression on his face.

Captain Bill Keogh, Scupper's owner and author of a book on kayaking in the Keys, guided us to No Name Key -- with 800 Keys, one eventually runs out of names, I guess -- first under a bridge to the open water, then limbo-like under low-hanging mangrove branches in a creek.

Paddling past the pastel-colored homes of those lucky enough to have front-row seats to view these peaceful waterways, he pointed out turtle grass ("flat, like linguine"), manatee grass ("round, spaghetti No. 9") and shoal grass ("thin, angel-hair pasta").

After Bill helped us work up an appetite, we had lunch at No Name Pub, a quirky landmark on Big Pine, once a bait-and-tackle shop and general store with a brothel upstairs, now distinguished by its decor of thousands of $1 bills covering every inch of wall and ceiling space -- up to 75,000 dollar bills, I soon learned.

But it was in Marathon that I truly immersed myself in Keys kayaking -- I actually fell in. Trying to heed Marathon Kayak's Dave Kaplan to "kiss your knees -- don't lean toward those low-lying branches," I learned two indisputable truths. One, that I had no upper-body strength of any kind so climbing back into the kayak, in water too deep to stand, was a lengthy ordeal.

Two: Crocs float!

One of my $10 Crocs sandals was merrily floating away before a heroic canine companion had an immersion experience of his own to rescue it.

Interestingly, South Florida's oldest Jewish congregation is in the Keys. "Miami was a mosquito-infested swamp when the first Jewish immigrants arrived in Key West," says Fred Cowan, the president of B'nai Zion Synagogue, established in 1887.

In 1832, when Key West was incorporated as a city, Jews were already here. As the city grew wealthy due to the "wrecking" business -- salvaging cargo and money from shipwrecks -- it drew many merchants. By the 1890s, so many Jewish pushcart peddlers competed with these merchants that Key West levied a license fee (comparable to $27,000 today), spurring them to open stores.

Many Jews avidly supported the Cuban revolution advocated by Jose Marti, whose speeches were often given from the porch of B'nai Zion member Louis Fine.

A pleasant walk through the delightful Key West historic district -- past white and pastel wood-framed houses, often with gingerbread trim in bright turquoise, purple or lavender -- led me to Key West Cemetery, where these 19th- and 20th-century merchants are buried in the B'nai Zion section.

Other sections are devoted to Cuban Revolution martyrs, Catholics and Hispanics. But one famous Key West tombstone here bears perhaps the most poignant inscription of all: "I told you I was sick."

For more information, go to: www.fla-keys.com.

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