Hemingway had the right idea. Key West is paradise in the state of Florida. As long as you avoid the tourist madness of lower Duval Street, the place is pure Caribbean-style bliss. A four-hour drive in the middle of the ocean is a small price to pay for the regenerative powers of a weekend with no worries, mon. Find a little gingerbread inn on a lushly shrouded side street. Rent a bike (they're available on every corner) and bump down the cobblestones to the beach, or the bar (we like the Blue Parrot or Hog's Breath Saloon), or the drag show at Diva's. Even the testosterone-fueled frat party at Sloppy Joe's doesn't annoy us. Still, we'd probably avoid the Hemingway Hammer, the hot-pink frozen goo that is Joe's special. Key West is best experienced faceup in the sunshine, not facedown in the porcelain.
When reading the dailies, we rarely go to the jump page. That's because we get the basics -- the who, what, when, and where -- in the first 'graph or two. The rest is dueling talking heads. But some daily reporters are talented enough to slip their "voices" into an edited story. When Stacey Singer writes, we go to the jump. She's no beat reporter; she covers everything from boiler-room scams to Christmas tree purchases to recalls of baby products. She caught our eye a year ago when she wrote about her experiences as a temporary crew member aboard the Endeavour, a replica of an 18th-century Australian ship, which stopped in West Palm Beach. Six months later she was sloshing through Hurricane Georges' floodwaters along the Gulf Coast, surveying a four-state landscape, providing details on the damage done to homes, businesses, animals, and people's lives. "Under spitting afternoon skies," she wrote, "Gail Harvey, 59, took a fishing boat back and forth to her house to retrieve valuables, including the woodcarvings her deceased father had made." Details make the difference in reporting, and those a reporter chooses say something about who she is. The woodcarvings stuck with us, as do many of the tidbits of info and the imagery (such as winds twisting "gas station roofs as if they were tinfoil") Singer provides. Her eye for detail makes her not just a good reporter, but a fine writer too.
A yellow road-sign hanging from a tree warns "Butterfly Crossing," and the traffic is indeed intense. Dozens of yellow-and-black-striped zebras and classic monarch butterflies swoop, golden sulphurs hover high above, and orange julias flit about the garden that wraps around building contractor Ralph Johnson's Fort Lauderdale home. More than a year ago, Johnson and a friend, Bonnie Campbell, began courting butterflies. They sought books and seminars to find out which plants -- including cassia, milkweed, passion vine, and the wine-stained Dutchman's pipe -- attract the delicate creatures. Now Johnson and Campbell have their own photo album that tracks caterpillars through the pupa stage to full-blown butterflies and a log in which they've noted 13 species that have paid them a visit and as many as 70 sightings in the garden at one time. Johnson talks about putting together a guide to cultivating butterflies in South Florida and recently gave an impromptu instructional tour to a stranger who drove into his driveway and asked for his secret. He is already offering seedlings to his neighbors, sprinkling pollenlike fairy dust in the hope of creating a block-long private Butterfly World.
It's a suitably ironic commentary on the dismal state of so much South Florida architecture that the most striking piece of work around is this gloriously gratuitous bit of design from the world-renowned firm of Arquitectonica, which has offices in Miami. Built a decade ago, this marble-and-ceramic "stairway to nowhere" flies in the face of the notion that form should follow function in architecture. It's a flashy construction of geometric shapes fashioned from bright, shiny blue and red tiles and a checkerboard slab of gray marble, assembled with steps and railings to suggest a Jetsons-style confluence of the '50s and futurism. The overall effect is that of a sort of deranged el train station, and the punch line is that, once you ascend the stairs, there's nowhere to go -- the walkways extending from the stairs into the terminal lead to nonexistent train tracks. The structure is a piece of pure absurdist eye candy.

Those are Ben Franklins you smell in the lobby of the Chesterfield Hotel. Crisp and tightly packed in a gold money clip, placed neatly inside the interior pocket of a pinstriped suit jacket. The portly gentleman wearing the suit saunters, Dominican in hand, toward the dark-wood-and-brass bar at the hotel restaurant, the Leopard Lounge. Two dignified middle-aged women with martinis ("Very dry, please") chat at small, low-to-the-ground cocktail tables by the dance floor. A three-piece band croons Sinatra tunes. The portly man with the Dominican smiles at the women and does a two-step past them. Were it not for the friendly bartenders, the live swing and dance music, and the nudes painted on the ceiling in swirls of red and white, the Leopard Lounge might at first glance appear to be too austere a place for even the bluest of blue bloods among us. But since it opened about ten years ago, the Leopard has been real money's top choice for a drink. Yes, there are celebrities: Alan King, Phyllis Diller -- even Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown (when he's not in jail or rehab). But they're bourgeois. Real money is invisible, because real money doesn't boast. And the Leopard Lounge is high society, where discussions of money -- greenbacks, moolah, cash, dough, shekels, secret accounts in the Cayman Islands -- are considered gauche. So if you start chatting with someone at the Leopard Lounge, just assume he or she has more money than God. Or you. And let him or her pick up the tab.
Park your butt on the whitewashed concrete railing on either side of the 11th Avenue bridge, gaze out over the north fork of the New River, and squint. If the sun's low in the sky to the west of Sailboat Bend, and you clamp your lids down just enough to add a blurry sepia tone to the scene, you can imagine that it's 1925. Movies cost a nickel. Kids don't sass their mamas, and small bridges are cranked open and closed by hand. Be patient. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes for a boater to hail the bridge and ask to pass. Then the bridge tender will sound a bell and drop the stop arms. He'll walk to the center of the 48-foot span, poke the business end of an L-shaped handle into a hole in the steel-mesh roadway, and put his back into it, walking the crank in a circle like a pony harnessed to a grist mill. The bridge will swing parallel to the river channel, allowing boats to pass on either side. No motor, no noise, no hurry. Just like the old days. The Snow-Reed (named for two former Fort Lauderdale mayors) is the only metal-truss swing bridge operating in South Florida. Bridge junkies will surely appreciate its rim-bearing pivot design featuring eight rollers and a centrally located wheel. The rest of us will marvel at how smoothly the bridge carves a lazy arc after 74 years and be glad we don't have to crank it open and closed 20 times a day.

Although many bigger charities have much bigger coffers, there's none nobler than Poverello. (The name is an Italian diminutive for "poor little one.") Every dollar raised by this AIDS relief organization, run by volunteers and Fr. William F. Collins, the unassuming but tireless Franciscan priest who started it in 1987, goes directly toward feeding and otherwise assisting people living with HIV. The agency runs a food bank and a fitness center for its more than 6000 clients, as well as a thrift store open to the public. When he's not visiting homes or hospitals or performing memorial services, "Father Bill" can often be seen rubbing elbows with drag queens and strippers as he makes the rounds of fundraising events at the many local gay bars that support his work.

Buddy Nevins may have a name that belongs on the liner notes of a country and western album, but the politicians he zings are the ones who have tears falling into their beers. Nevins, a 20-year Sun-Sentinel vet, took over the "political writer" mantle five years ago and immediately turned the once-lifeless political column into a news-breaker, uncovering political hypocrisy, corruption, and various shenanigans on a weekly basis. For all his columnizing, however, Nevins doesn't come across as mean-spirited or holier-than-thou. You can't even tell if the guy is a Democrat or Republican. "I'm an equal-opportunity insulter," he says with a laugh. Don't stop tellin' on them cheatin' hearts, Buddy.
Without a doubt, one of the nastiest places in which to spend a day is Room 130 of the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. This is where not-so-upstanding citizens go to take care of parking fines and other misdemeanors. Apparently we have a lot of traffic scofflaws in this region, because the lines in room 130 are long. The room can get mighty crowded and uncomfortable on a hot, nasty summer day. We guarantee there would be a lot more bloodshed in this room -- we're talking about traffic offenders, after all -- if not for the little magic box in the corner. On most days it's tuned to CNN, but we've also stumbled onto Oprah and Golden Girls reruns. The TV was actually donated to room 130 six years ago by now-retired judge Gerald Mager. But let us praise his honor, because his is a gift that keeps on giving.
This is the place to go to escape the daily grind without leaving town. Tucked in a secluded alcove at the far tip of Fort Lauderdale beach, Lago-Mar is as far as you're going to get from the teeming masses of the new, improved, family-friendly Fort Lauderdale. The beach is wide and groomed and, miracle of miracles, private. The pools are ringed with palms and tropical flowers, the halls are chiseled with pastel mosaics and lulled by piano music. Sure the rooms are typically no-frills, but they are large and airy and about as nice as you'll find without heading up to the Palm Beaches. The key word here is relaxation. Easy enough when, fully booked, the place still feels like some private oasis.

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