Our most recent adventure in Florida took us to the seaport town of Port Salerno on the Manatee Cut off the Atlantic Ocean. First stop: a gas station. My husband eschews the local gas station with the long lines and decides to drive north where gas is cheaper.
We’re driving through a pocket of Route One, aka Federal Highway, that is struggling. Tattered plastic grocery bags tied to the gas pumps ripple with the strong breeze. No Gas for Sale. Finally we pass a Mom and Pop station that has two cars at the pumps. A station wagon circles the lot, the driver’s door open, the guy holding the wheel with one hand, looking backwards out the door. It appears he has forgotten which side of the car his gas tank is on.
There’s a problem with the pumps. The debit card doesn’t work. The man with the open door walks to the convenience store to pay for his gas, Rich is a step or two behind him but gaining ground quickly as the man shuffles along. The disheveled woman he is traveling with is smoking a cigarette while loudly shouting and berating the downtrodden man.
“Goddamn, useless SOB.”
Rich returns and gets in the car without filling the tank. The debit machine inside wasn’t working either. We want to keep our cash for the seafood festival. The other guy had a ten dollar bill so he purchased seven dollars worth of gas. As we pull out of the station, we hear the woman shout, “I could have taken the bus, for Christ’s sake. Now I’m late.”
“Late for what?” Rich wonders, looking at her wild gray hair and rumpled clothing. On a three mile drive through South Florida you can learn all you need to know about America. The Great Divide is wide and highly visible in this far corner of the country.
We find another gas station with cheaper gas two miles down the road and fill up. The exit is tricky. Somehow we end up the third car in a takeout line at a Checkers, the fast food burger joints with the trademark plastic red umbrellas. Rich looks at me and asks, “What do you want?” I’ve never eaten at a Checkers and I’m not about to start today. He backs up and we’re finally on the road to the Port Salerno Seafood Festival.
I truly believe if you set off to have a good time, you will have a good time. It’s all about your attitude. Life is what you make it. Most days.
I heard about Port Salerno from Suzanne Connors, a woman I met through my blog. She’s a fabric designer who read my piece on Northwood Village in West Palm and suggested a visit to this seaport town as a place I might enjoy in my search for the real Florida.
We stopped at her lovely shop in the Fish House Art Center where we chatted for quite sometime.
Rich and I often wonder how we ended up in the part of South Florida we now live in. We know the answers; the builder my husband met and the plans I had to write and start a small business with a friend of mine, helping other authors get self-published. Some plans didn’t work out as expected and we are not thrilled with the concrete jungle that is South Florida; the traffic, the six lane local roads with the red lights, the inaccessible beaches. So on this beautiful day, we found ourselves walking along the harbor and through the streets of Port Salerno saying, “This is the Florida I imagined we would be living in.” The friendly town reminded us of our time in Brattleboro this past summer. Vermont in the tropics, if that’s possible.
The choices of seafood were endless. We started with raw oysters from Louisiana that reminded us of the ones Rich used to dig out of Great Bay in New Hampshire. Plump, silky hogans as a friend of ours calls them. “Hogan” he would shout when he found a particularly large one while digging out on Monomoy Island off of Cape Cod. There’s nothing like shucking oysters and cherrystones and eating them right there on the beach where you found them, with a shot of hot sauce and a cold beer.
We sat at a long picnic table with a group of people and immediately struck up a conversation, sharing anecdotes of our travels and reviewing the food choices we had made as we were all planning to go back for more. The conversation bounced around: crab cakes, fishing off Cape Cod, seared tuna, Lake Michigan, fried catfish, coconut shrimp, fly fishing in Idaho, fish tacos, conch fritters. Paul Harvey meets Anthony Bourdain.
We had all lived in Colorado at one time or another and agreed it was beautiful. “Hard to make a living there though,” one man said. “Wages aren’t so good, living is expensive, and you can’t eat scenery.”
We told him the story of the day we were cleaning up after a nor’easter and told the man who lived across the street we were selling the house and moving to Florida. Our neighbor smiled and said, “But won’t you miss all this?” waving his hand at the two foot snowbanks lining the driveway. “After all, you can’t shovel sunshine.”
Port Salerno is a real fishing village and the local fishermen were at the festival selling their fresh catch.
We wandered the side streets where a group of pirates had set up an encampment.
Small Key West style bungalows were hosting parties for friends who were visiting in their campers for the weekend. One proud homeowner was giving a tour of his modest bungalow which had been renovated without destroying the authentic style of the house. The large cow on the front lawn has a smoker in the belly of the bovine.
Throughout the day, local bands played reggae, rock’n roll, and jazz. There was one band in particular that I really enjoyed. I needed to find out their name so I walked over to the sound tent and introduced myself as a local writer who was blogging about the event. “Cody and the Qualified,” the very friendly April Price told me. Turns out she was the coordinator of the event and offered to bring us over to the VIP booth where we enjoyed free food and beers for the rest of the day. We also met more people who joined us at our table and chatted for a couple of hours, soaking up the sun, listening to great music, eating more seafood, and exchanging cards with plans to meet again.
Passing a few unique local restaurants and a garage band on our way back to the car, the conversation kept coming back to how much we loved Port Salerno, and how it was what we were looking for when we moved to Florida. We began to make plans to return, soon. The following day I heard from Suzanne Connors, the owner of Aya Fiber Studio. She invited us to come back and join her and her partner for dinner some night when the village was less crowded.
“We’re already planning on it,” I told her. “See you soon.”
If you find yourself along the Treasure Coast of South Florida, don’t leave without visiting Port Salerno.
Here’s Cody and The Qualified: