By Catherine O' Neal
Kick back. Grab a margarita and a cheeseburger. These Florida beaches are Parrot Head friendly.
Jimmy Buffett's tunes are about not taking anything too seriously: carefree days on island beaches, loyal drinking buddies and the perfect cheeseburger. He turns stories into whimsical ballads sung to the hypnotic metronome of a hammock swing. But along the way he draws a lyrical map for us, creating the tropical notes that lead us to the sunny spots of his songbooks.
Margaritaville is really just another way to say salt-rimmed glass, floral shirt and a bar stool in Key West. Maybe you really do have a cousin in Miami. It's a good excuse to hit South Beach and find out. Go ahead and savor a St. Petersburg sunset with an aging pirate of fate or take a boat to Cabbage Key for a cheeseburger in paradise.
So, go ahead. Walk in Buffett's sandals and feel the magic of his sun-soaked words. Here are some of the most famous beaches for parrot heads in Florida:
"I blew out my flip-flop
Stepped on a pop-top
Cut my heel had to cruise on back home
But there's the booze in the blender
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on
Wastin' away again in Margaritaville..."
-- from "Margaritaville"
Key West, the parrot head holy land. It is a balmy mecca where Jimmy Buffett's "license to chill" is practically a local ordinance. Walking along Duval Street - in flip flops, of course - Buffett's lyrics seem to come to life. Palm trees dance to a gentle breeze. Iguanas wear jewelry. And, Margaritaville is not just a tune. It's an actual place here, where you can hum Buffett's songs with kindred spirits at the official Parrot Head bar.
At Margaritaville, Buffett CD covers form a musical tablecloth under a ceiling swirled into the shape of a roiling hurricane. Picking a margarita is almost a daunting task with so many variations. You can even have one made from the Buffett-blessed tequila.
Everybody is supposed to have a good time in a place where a saloon owner can become a politician and locals have been known to rear up and create their own Conch Republic. That's why we come to see the sun set from Mallory Square and the entertaining show that continues to unfold there. It's why we watch street vendors weave palm fronds into hats and souvenirs. Why we check out the Hog's Breath Saloon. Or find ourselves standing by a window at Sloppy Joe's, listening to the latest talent pick up a microphone - no doubt hoping they, too, will achieve the fame of Buffett.
But don't take Buffett's wastin' away lyrics to heart for too long. You don't want to miss out on the sidewalk cafés, conch tour train, President Truman's "Little White House," Ernest Hemingway's house or a hauntingly-fun ghost tour.
Or the beaches. You can do a little "Havana Daydreamin'," at the end of Duval Street, where it's about 90 miles from the Southernmost Point to Cuba. The beach near Fort Zachary Taylor will give you another perspective of the island. And it might be wise to slowly ease out of this self-inflicted island daze by checking out the watersports and bike paths at Smathers Beach, just west of the airport.
Ah, yes, the cheeseburger. Cabbage Key is credited with inspiring Buffett's carnivorous ditty. Perched 38 feet above sea level on an Indian shell mound, you can only get to Cabbage Key by boat. It is rustic. No frills (rooms don't even have keys). And no fries.
Sure, you can sit at one of the outdoor tables and tell your waiter you just want to look at the menu for a bit. But he'll intuitively respond, "You know you want a cheeseburger."- And you do.
"Cheeseburger in paradise
Heaven on earth with an onion slice
Not too particular, not too precise
I'm just a cheeseburger in paradise..."
-- from "Cheeseburger in Paradise"
Buffett's picture is behind the bar here, almost lost among the more than 30,000 dollar bills that patrons have signed and stuck to walls, ceilings and doors. About $10,000 fall down every year and are given to various charities.
Around noon on a weekend, the quiet oasis shifts from hideaway to attraction. It gets so busy that the dockmaster has to work his radio like an air traffic controller, somehow finding places for a growing crowd of yachts, shuttles and even a sea plane to tie-off. But even with 50-foot-plus yachts docked out front, all pretense drops inside the screen porch where you are just a ketchup bottle away from a new friend.
This is a place of bikini tops and Bloody Marys for breakfast. Where the talk is about fishing, the weather and what port of call is next. Some come in still damp from paddling a kayak ashore. Others try to catch that last bit of sun before heading back to snow and cabin fever. But before you go, you'll have that cheeseburger - served somewhere between medium and medium well - and so juicy it'll soak the bun if you spend too much time staring at the waves lapping at the shore.
"Everybody's got a cousin in Miami
Everybody understands the impromptu
Dancing in the heat to the beat
That turns your clothing clammy
Everybody needs to have a dream come true..."
-- from "Everybody's Got a Cousin in Miami"
While Key West and Cabbage Key may best symbolize Buffett's island mantra, Miami has his social soul. It has a tropical beat. But it is more Latin than laid back. More salsa than cheeseburger. Miami is a melting pot, its passion tied to Buffett's line - "It was ninety miles to freedom, but they took the risk. Though the ocean was all motion and the wind was brisk."
Miami's South Beach is part of the 7.1-mile long Miami Beach, which includes the more family-oriented Mid Beach and North Beach. South Beach is part beach, part party.
You'll find European and Latin accents on its golden sand along with an athletic following attracted to the blissful setting for workouts. Across from the beach, you may actually have to interrupt a photo shoot to get inside your hotel.
So enjoy. Stay up late and hit the chic clubs and bars that line Collins Avenue and Washington Avenue. And make sure you stop at the News Café, which serves breakfast 24 hours a day. Try the News Nachos, which is a memorable dessert that comes in a big martini glass.
Your cousin may not live among the pastels of the Art Deco District, but odds are if you stay long enough you'll find an extended family with a kindred spirit.
ST. PETE BEACH
"Yes, I am a pirate, two hundred years too late
The cannons don't thunder, there's nothin' to plunder
I'm an over-forty victim of fate
Arriving too late, arriving too late..."
-- from "A Pirate Looks at 40"
Maybe Jimmy Buffett, and the rest of us, arrived too late to be pirates. But there is still a chance to pretend on St. Pete Beach. All you have to do is follow the pink beacon of The Don CeSar Beach Resort on St. Pete Beach and you'll think you sailed the seas and found your fortune.
You'll want to hit the beach. St. Pete Beach, which changed its name from St. Petersburg Beach in 1994, is a barrier island intent on perpetuating an identity more relaxed than St. Petersburg proper. Even more remote is Shell Key, an island popular for its shelling and the sand dollars that have been known to form a living carpet just off its shore.
For those more suited to the high seas, the area offers bay, Intracoastal and Gulf waters to navigate. Each year a motley crew of pirates assemble an armada to assault nearby Tampa during the annual Gasparilla festival. The events honor Jose Gaspar, the legendary pirate who preyed on West Coast waters.
But you don't have to be a pirate to enjoy the bounty of nearby Treasure Island with its wide, white sandy beach. And you can safely explore Fort De Soto Park, whose beach has been top-ranked by beach aficionado Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a.k.a. "Dr. Beach." It also offers a place to quietly rollerblade, fish or kayak.
Another favorite of locals and tourists is Pass-a-Grille Beach, adjacent to St. Pete Beach. This artsy haven is 31 blocks long, which creates a village feel of unusual cottages and waterfront homes. The Hurricane restaurant here is a local institution frequently pillaged for its sandwiches and three-story sunset view.
"The weather is here I wish you were beautiful
The skies are too clear it's easy today
The beer is too cold, the daiquiri's too fruitiful
There's no place like home when it's this far away
I don't care what they say'"
-- from "The Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful"
The weather, along with just about everything else, is beautiful on the Paradise Coast. Mother Nature gets most of the credit, but the area backs up its nickname with an upscale stretch of homes and waterfronts from Naples to Marco Island and the Everglades.
But it is Naples that is probably most attractive to another Buffett - Warren Buffett, the financial wizard. Naples reportedly has more millionaires per capita than any other place in the state. Its sunsets are breathtaking. So delightful, in fact, that people on Vanderbilt Beach cheer as the sun disappears behind the horizon.
The regal neighborhoods of Port Royal and Gulfshore Boulevard provide entry to public beaches - and a chance for anyone to walk the shore against a backdrop of multicolored mansions. On nearby Marco Island are more treats at Tigertail Beach and South Beach.
The Paradise Coast maintains its natural preserves just as handsomely as its multi-million-dollar homes. The coastline offers pristine mangroves and a chance to catch tarpon, snook and redfish - a most refined entry to the Everglades, where nature thrives at its own peaceful pace.
INaples is also known for its abundant golf courses. It has the second-most golf holes per capita in the United States. There are also 100 art galleries, the Philharmonic Center for the Arts and the Naples Museum of Art.
Shopping in Florida, but specially in this city is an event. Check out the stores that line Third Street South, Fifth Avenue South and Tin City. There is also the Bayfront, The Village on Venetian Bay and Waterside Shops at Pelican Bay. You can even combine shopping with lunch at Tommy Bahama, where you can browse among aisles of comfortable weekend wear while waiting for a table at Tommy Bahama's Restaurant, Bar & Store. Get a drink amid fresh flowers in a clever, comfortable hut suitable for munching unusual salads and mango slices.
"Can't you feel 'em circlin' honey?
Can't you feel 'em swimmin' around?
You got fins to the left, fins to the right
And you're the only girl in town'"
-- from "Fins"
Driving toward the beach in Venice, I came upon a woman gleefully heading toward the water. She was carrying a square contraption - a sort of sieve like old prospectors might have used to mine gold - with a long handle.
In Venice, they cull the sand for a different kind of nugget: shark teeth. Venice Beach is known as the sharks tooth capital of the world because of its fossilized finds. The search and tradition is so popular that it is cause for the annual BB&T Venice Sharks Tooth Festival each April.
But it doesn't take a special occasion for people to turn out to Caspersen Beach, the longest beach in Sarasota County and another sure bet to find fossils. Venice is quaint and charming in a not-too-developed Southern way. The area also includes South Venice, Nokomis, Laurel and Osprey. Downtown Venice, though, has plenty of sidewalk shopping and homespun dining. Wednesday afternoons are devoted to lawn-chair concerts by the white pavilion in Centennial Park during the winter months.
"As the son of a son of a sailor
I went out on the sea for adventure
Expanding the view of the captain and crew
Like a man just released from indenture'"
-- from "Son of a Sailor"
Fort Lauderdale is a captain's dream - with so much water, cars seem like an afterthought. But you don't really have to be a son of a sailor to get around. And you don't even have to know how to sail. The average pleasure boat can get you up and down the Intracoastal quite nicely. But if you're a former spring-breaker back in Fort Lauderdale as grown-up international banker why not rent a yacht and crew?
Food, nightlife, shopping. It's all just a wave away in this Venice of America. Dock and hop to restaurants like Shooters Waterfront Café, 15th Street Fisheries. Don't have a boat? Not a problem. Take the Water Taxi for a narrated cruise past million-dollar mansions and yachts.
You'll want to spend some time on land, too. No trip to Fort Lauderdale is complete without a night along trendy Las Olas Boulevard.
And take time to appreciate the water from Fort Lauderdale's beachfront promenade that is paved with bricks and dotted with palm trees along its intriguing wave wall.
Take a little more time, too, to pamper yourself at the Marriott's Harbor Beach Resort, The Pillars Hotel at New River Sound or the more secluded Lago Mar Resort and Club. Then sail away to sweet dreams.
PENSACOLA & PANAMA CITY BEACHES
“It’s these changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes
Nothing remains quite the same
With all of our running and all of our cunning
If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane…”
-- from “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes”
Jimmy Buffett's lyrics have become a soundtrack for northwest Florida and its beach-loving attitude. Driving along U.S. 98 to the most westernly portion of Florida, you cross into a different time zone as well as another state of mind. I learned long ago to take the scenic route that seems to dip almost into the Gulf of Mexico as its meanders north and then west.
The trip to Pensacola and Panama City Beach is by far one of the most beautiful and relaxing you'll find looking for a beach break. But once you get here, the reward continues. Panama City Beach's emerald waves look like they belong in the Caribbean. But the surfline gives this water a bit of an attitude.
Maybe it is about a change in latitude. A few years back, some locals were convinced the area was so attractive that UFOs were visiting the skies over nearby Gulf Breeze. Positioned on a barrier island at the mouth of Pensacola, it would be hard for any beings to resist.
The beach has a fishing pier and popular hangouts such as Grand Marlin, Flounder's, Paradise Bar & Grill and Portofino Boardwalk. McGuire's, on the mainland side of historic downtown Pensacola, continues to entertain with its unusual decor. The restaurant is known for its microbrewery and nearly $1 million in one-dollar bills dotting walls and ceilings.