Allison Entrekin is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in all things travel. In her role with Atlanta Magazine Custom Media, she is the editor of the Georgia Travel Guide and executive editor with Southbound. She has a bachelor's degree from the University of Florida and a master's degree from the University of Georgia.
Truman Capote was not born inside New Orleans’s Hotel Monteleone. But when he drank there with friends, which was often, he liked to claim he was. It wasn’t so much a lie as an ebullient spin on the truth: His mother spent her pregnancy as a guest of the grand French Quarter hotel, and the staff arranged her transportation to a nearby hospital when she went into labor with her son. Today, the hotel’s Capote Suite reflects the trademark pomp of the Southern Gothic author—crystal chandeliers, a traditional parlor, and ornately draped windows overlooking the corner of Iberville and Royal streets.
Capote isn’t the only famous writer with ties to Hotel Monteleone. Tennessee Williams frequently met Capote at the hotel’s Carousel Bar for cocktails (more on the bar later); in Williams’s play The Rose Tattoo, the property makes a cameo as a modern hotspot. Today, a suite named in the playwright’s honor comes complete with its own wet bar and an elegant six-person dining table. Ernest Hemingway mentioned the Carousel Bar in his short war story “The Night Before Battle,” so it’s only appropriate that the hotel’s Hemingway Suite is located in an area of the building that once housed Union troops. And Eudora Welty featured the bar in her short story “The Purple Hat”; her namesake room offers wide-angle views of the Mississippi River.
With its many connections to prominent authors, Hotel Monteleone is one of only three hotels in the United States designated as a Literary Landmark by the Friends of the Library Association. But long before it received the honor in 1999, it was a landmark in its own right. Located a block off Bourbon Street, it was founded in the mid–nineteenth century as a sixty-four-room hotel and purchased in 1886 by a wealthy Sicilian cobbler, Antonio Monteleone. Though it has seen significant changes over the years, including the addition of more than 500 rooms and a heated rooftop pool and bar, it remains family-owned. Today, a fifth generation of Monteleones manages the bustling hotel.
This includes the Carousel Bar, undoubtedly one of the most famous drinking establishments in a city jammed with them. Open since 1949, it is beloved for the twenty-five-seat “carousel” encircling the bar, which completes its leisurely revolution every fifteen minutes. For those lucky enough to nab a seat (there’s plenty of overflow in the adjoining lounge), the must-order drink is the Vieux Carre, a smooth whiskey cocktail invented here.
Rooms at the hotel are plush and floral, featuring high ceilings, crown molding, and marble and granite bathrooms. There are a number of accommodation types, including six varieties of suites—most notably those literary suites paying homage to scribes who have fallen in love with the hotel over the years. Through their words, both written and spoken, they gave this New Orleans hotel the gift of immortality. Even when those words weren’t entirely true.
Power-Lunch Like a Local If you’re in New Orleans on a Friday, make plans—and save your pennies—for the popular lunch at Galatoire’s, one of the French Quarter’s oldest and most venerated Creole restaurants. While tables on the main floor usually require reservations, this meal offers the weekly exception. In-the-know types show up in the wee hours of the morning and pay a professional “line sitter” to hold their spot until the doors open at 11:30 a.m. (The going rate for this service is $20 per person in the reservation.) Come lunchtime, diners return in their Big Easy finery (most men wear jackets; collared shirts are required) and head inside for a lunch that can last until dinner. Plan to order stiff drinks, let your server choose your meal, and spot plenty of local politicians milling from table to table. By the time you’re on your second or third cocktail, someone will bang a spoon on a glass to announce their friend is celebrating a birthday. Or a wedding. Or a divorce. In any case, the whole room will shake their white-linen napkins and cheer until a three-piece band enters the dining area to play a tune. It’s raucous, unrepentant, and delicious fun. Just like New Orleans.
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.
Situated on a mountain plateau in western North Carolina, some 4,000 feet above sea level, the four-stoplight town of Highlands is no secluded hamlet. Dubbed the Aspen of the East, it attracts 200,000 visitors a year. They come for its mild weather, labyrinth of hiking trails, and manicured golf courses. They also come for its Main Street. Straight out of a postcard, its four wide blocks are lined with canopied restaurants and boutiques, dog bowls filled with water, and charming inns—including one of only two Relais & Châteaux properties in North Carolina. In the fall, restaurants host sold-out dinners during the town’s signature food and wine festival; come winter, shops compete in holiday window-display contests. Still, this is not a place built for tourists in search of a small-town feel; it’s made for the people who actually live here. The thoroughfare is home to Highlands’s only hardware store, a barber shop, a post office, and four churches. It is both a gathering place for locals and a sweet escape for visitors—a Main Street in every sense of the word.
Highlands Wine Shoppe This charming shop, housed in Main Street’s first residence (built in 1883), carries more than 650 wines, from $800 cabs to $10 Rieslings. Take your bottle home, or pop the cork and enjoy it with an antipasto plate on the sprawling front lawn.
C. Orrico This upscale women’s boutique was started by the three Orrico sisters: Kathie, Casey, and Colleen. Decorated with straw baskets and nautical pillows, the bright shop sells Lilly Pulitzer face masks, Sail to Sable dresses, and Trina Turk tunics.
Old Edwards Inn & Spa One of only two Relais & Châteaux inns in North Carolina, this Old World–style property is known for elegant accommodations and top-notch service. Request a suite in the historic main inn with a terrace overlooking Main Street for prime people watching.
Four65 Open since May, this sleek gourmet pizza joint features an open kitchen showcasing its giant wood-fired brick ovens. Order the Kentucky Fig cocktail (made with bourbon, fig-flavored vodka, lemon, blueberry, and ginger ale) and the crowd-pleasing brussels-and-bacon pizza.
Highlands Mountain Paws
Between the creaky wooden floors and the menagerie of dogs milling about, this popular pet boutique is as cozy as they come. Browse for a range of gifts for cats and dogs, from cheeky Pets Rock artwork to all-natural treats made in nearby Waynesville.
S’more Kids Klothes Small and tidy, with cork floors covered by colorful rugs, this new shop for babies and children carries everything from wooden toys to holiday outfits. As cheerful eighties music plays over the speakers, shop for Joules lunch boxes and color-changing Holly & Beau raincoats.
Bardo 49 Local designers Jay and Lisa Calloway transformed a former pharmacy into a Southwest-inspired furniture store, complete with leather chairs and copper firepits spilling onto the sidewalk. Shop for cowhide bags and feather wreaths, a reclaimed metalwork table, and even turquoise jewelry.
SweeTreats Ice Cream & Deli This retro shop custom-blends vanilla and chocolate ice cream with candies, fruits, nuts, and sauces, drawing after-dinner crowds since its opening in the eighties. The adjoining deli is beloved for the Highlands Hill sandwich, made with turkey, bacon, Havarti, mayo, and slices of fresh avocado.
Wolfgang’s Restaurant & Wine Bistro Chef Wolfgang Green has drawn from his German heritage and New Orleans influences (he was once a chef for the famed Brennan family) to create a German-Creole menu with items such as veal medallions served with sauteed crawfish and potato. Now in its twenty-sixth season, this white-tablecloth restaurant is a Highlands institution.
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.
Some AAA Five Diamond resorts are playgrounds for A-listers like Sir Elton John, Cameron Diaz, and Sofia Vergara. Others have a history of welcoming American royalty like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Astors. But few resorts can make both claims. And fewer still have been owned by the same family since their founding.
Henry Morrison Flagler established what came to be known as the Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, in 1896, at the height of the Gilded Age. The railroad tycoon needed overflow rooms for the Royal Poinciana, his grand hotel nearby, so he enlarged his winter home by the mighty Atlantic and constructed a 1,000-foot pier from which guests could sail to Key West, Nassau, and Havana. Before long, visitors—among them Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst—began requesting rooms “down by the breakers” instead of a few miles inland at the Royal Poinciana. And thus, the Breakers was born.
Over the next quarter century, Flagler extended his Florida East Coast Railway so it reached the Breakers’s front doors, bringing a boom to both the resort and the local economy. But massive fires twice burned the property to the ground. The resort’s current incarnation, completed in 1926 after the second fire, was designed to look like Rome’s storied Villa Medici. (It also resembles Flagler’s 1888 Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, now part of Flagler College.) Venetian chandeliers illuminate the 200-foot-long marble lobby, and the ceilings were hand-painted by seventy-five Italian artists with scenes from their country’s renaissance. It’s little wonder that on its grand reopening weekend, the Palm Beach Post-Times deemed the occasion “a milestone in the architectural perfection of American hotels.”
Despite the accolades, the Breakers never rested on its laurels—and perhaps that’s the reason it remains one of the country’s most celebrated resorts. Its owners, Flagler’s heirs, infuse it with a minimum of $30 million in capital improvements each year. More than 500 spacious guest rooms are decorated in shades of blue and white, and many have ocean views. There are four pools, ten restaurants, an indoor-outdoor fitness facility, and a Forbes Five-Star spa. Once home to Florida’s first golf course, a nine-hole stretch of manicured greens designed in 1897, the resort now features the championship eighteen-hole Ocean Course, a favorite of celebrities like Alex Rodriguez. There’s even a Lilly Pulitzer boutique on-site because, well, this is Palm Beach.
The famous still flock to the Breakers, just as they have for the last 125 years. But the biggest name attached to the resort remains that of Henry Flagler, the father of Florida hospitality and a man whose accidental oceanside resort continues to prosper under his family’s supervision. One of Flagler’s most enduring accomplishments in a resume jammed with them, the resort remains a place where visitors come to relax in style “down by the breakers.”
One South County Road, Palm Beach, Florida • 877-789-2596 • thebreakers.com
While You’re There: Take a walking tour of Worth Avenue
Since the 1920s, this four-block street from Lake Worth to the Atlantic Ocean has owned its reputation as one of the most glamorous shopping destinations in the world. Beginning in December, take a seventy-five-minute historic walking tour of the Mediterranean Revival-style district. Stop at the site of Lilly Pulitzer’s original juice stand, where she debuted her now-iconic patterned shift dress. Pop your head into Ta-boo restaurant, once a favorite haunt of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. And check out the avenue’s only residence, that of Worth Avenue’s eccentric founder, Addison Mizner. Tours are $10 a person, and reservations are not required.
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.
Our Expert Asheville’s Anne Fitten Glenn is the author of two books—Asheville Beer: An Intoxicating History of Mountain Brewing and Western North Carolina Beer: A Mountain Brew History. She hosts the Imbibe Asheville weekly radio show and podcast.
What’s your perfect beer day? I would start by kayaking on the French Broad River downtown with a six-pack of Asheville Brewing Company’s Perfect Day IPA. Then I’d go to South Slope, our unofficial brewery district with eleven breweries. Lunch there would be at Buxton Hall Barbecue, where I’d order the pulled-pork platter and Hi-Wire Brewing’s Bed of Nails Brown Ale. Buxton Hall used to be a roller-skating rink, and it has these lovely industrial windows and an open kitchen.
After lunch, I’d walk next door to Catawba Brewing and order whatever’s new and seasonal. From there, it’s a two-minute stroll to Dirty Jack’s for their roasty, English-style porter. Both Catawba and Dirty Jack’s are old-fashioned warehouses, so for something a little hipper, I’d head north to Dssolvr, one of Asheville’s newest breweries. It’s in a historic downtown building, and the interior walls were designed by local graffiti artists. I love their light, low-ABV Thank You for Existing Kölsch-style ale.
For dinner, I’d go to Burial Beer’s Forestry Camp near Biltmore Village. It’s in an old Civilian Conservation Corps building from the thirties that sat empty for decades. The Surf Wax IPA goes down easy, and they have amazing, local charcuterie made in-house.
For a nightcap, there’s a small brewery next to the Moog Factory called Archetype Brewing. They have a female brewer, Erin Jordan, who is super cool. Their Cowboy Poet lager is the perfect way to end the evening because it’s light, fizzy, and has low ABV (alcohol by volume). I’d sit at a picnic table and listen to live music until it was time to walk home; I live nearby.
Any worthwhile beer tours? Brew-Ed is an educational walking tour of downtown Asheville with beer tastings. The guy who runs it, Cliff Mori, really knows his stuff. There’s another one called Asheville Rooftop Bar Tours. We have numerous rooftop bars, some of which are not easy to find, with these incredible views of the mountains. It’s fun to go to all the different rooftops and sip local beers at sunset.
If your group has people who aren’t beer fans (gasp!), what’s the best watering hole that will accommodate everyone? Ooh, let me tell you about a super-cool place down by the river called Plēb Urban Winery. They make wine in-house with grapes they source from within a 200-mile radius. They also have local beer on tap. It’s in a huge industrial warehouse in the River Arts District.
When people come to Asheville to check out its beer scene, what are common mistakes they often make? Don’t wait in a line to get into a brewery. There are so many options all around you, turn around and walk somewhere else and have a great beer. We have tons of options; that’s what makes the brewing scene special here.
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.
Before 2017, Laurel, Mississippi, was rarely, if ever, on the minds of people who didn’t live there. It certainly didn’t attract travelers from around the world. But thanks to Ben and Erin Napier, stars of HGTV’s Home Town, it is now a popular destination, a town where people go to remind themselves that even the humblest of locales has something special to offer. All it takes are the eyes to see its potential.
Ben and Erin Napier do not concern themselves with how things are. They are
interested in how things could be. In 2008, when the Ole Miss graduates moved into a downtown loft in Erin’s hometown of Laurel, Mississippi, the community of 18,000 appeared to be going nowhere. Situated seventy-five miles southeast of Jackson in the state’s Pine Belt region, it had scores of boarded-up buildings, a single restaurant downtown, and virtually no foot traffic.
Ben and Erin would take evening strolls along the deserted streets and dream. “We wanted to be able to walk to a date night,” Ben, thirty-seven, recalls. “We wanted it to feel like Oxford. We really wished there was a bakery downtown where we could get up in the morning on a Saturday and walk and pick up breakfast. That was the end-all-be-all dream, actually.”
Today, Laurel has thirty revitalized historic buildings, five downtown restaurants (plus a food truck), and pedestrians aplenty. It even has a bakery beloved for its sticky buns and banana bread. “We probably gained fifteen pounds the month they opened,” Erin, thirty-five, says.
They have only themselves to blame. Since the Napiers’s home-improvement show, Home Town, debuted on HGTV in 2017, it has become one of the network’s most popular programs, luring 30 million viewers last season. Each one-hour episode follows the couple as they transform Laurel’s aging abodes into stylish showplaces, typically within a tight timeframe and on an even tighter budget. Home Town spotlights Erin’s artistic vision and Ben’s woodworking skills, plus their innate ability to spy the glint of diamond long hidden in the rough.
Thanks to the show’s success, the town in which it is set has become a place of pilgrimage for fans. Millennials have begun snapping Instagram photos in front of downtown murals. Fans from as far away as New Zealand have shown up to walk its streets. Seventeen new Airbnb properties have opened since Home Town premiered—a few of them homes once featured on the show. “We probably have 100 percent more tourism than we had five years ago,” says Judi Holifield, executive director of Laurel Main Street, an economic development and preservation organization.
All of it thrills the Napiers. “This is all a God thing,” Erin says. “We never planned any of this.”
When Erin first spotted Ben their freshman year at Jones County Junior College (both transferred to the University of Mississippi in their third year), she was a shy art student from nearby Laurel, and he was the gregarious son of a traveling preacher. “He was the most popular person on campus,” she says. “But he was kind to every person he encountered. He would sit at the table with whoever was eating alone at the student union. I remember watching him from a distance and wishing I could be his friend.” But she was intimidated, not least by his size: He stood six-foot-six to her five-foot-five.
Ben, on the other hand, was intrigued. “Erin was very different from the typical girls I had dated most of my life,” he says. “She had a pixie-style haircut, and she just carried herself differently.” He tried talking to her a few times, but she always blew him off—or so he thought.
“I’d get so nervous that I’d act really cold and indifferent,” Erin says. “It was really just self-preservation. I didn’t want to blurt out, ‘I think you’re the best person I’ve ever seen and I’m in love with you.’”
She was forced to speak to Ben when the campus yearbook told her to interview him for a series on the college’s most interesting people. Pen and paper in hand, she found herself asking him his favorite books, movies, pastimes. He, in turn, asked her on a date. Within one week, he had met her parents and told her he loved her. This was it, and they both knew it.
From that day on, the two were inseparable, walking hand in hand through the quad and holing up at bookstores to read novels they couldn’t afford to buy. After graduation, they were married. And that’s when they moved to the loft in Laurel.
“I was from out of town, but I’ve always been obsessed with little downtowns because I lived in a lot of them growing up,” Ben says. “I was definitely obsessed with Laurel.”
He and Erin began their careers: she as a designer for a technology company, he as a youth minister. In his spare time, Ben volunteered with Laurel Main Street, eventually becoming its president. The economic-development organization believed its town had something to offer tourists zipping by on I-59—a reason to exit, to explore. Problem was, most people had never heard of Laurel or what made it special.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Laurel was a thriving timber town with a streetcar system and a city park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect behind New York City’s Central Park. Many of its grandest abodes from that era still stand; in fact, the town is home to Mississippi’s largest collection of residential architecture from the early 1900s. It also lays claim to the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, the first art museum in the state. “If you pay attention and look closely, you see all these things, and it becomes this really amazing place to visit,” Ben says. “It’s more than just another small town.”
In 2011, Ben and Erin purchased a 1925 Craftsman cottage in the historic district. They had long admired it on their evening walks, falling in love with its deep front porch and cozy feel. But it needed some serious updates, including an entirely new kitchen. Despite their lack of professional training, Erin began to sketch ideas for each room, while Ben tried his hand at cabinetry. Each day, Erin would blog about their progress.
That blog, Make Something Good Today, and the clever ideas the couple shared on it (turning porch columns into a dining table, converting factory pulleys into light fixtures), caught the attention of HGTV’s director of development in 2014. It wasn’t long before a film crew flew in to shoot a sizzle reel of Laurel. Impressed by what they saw, the network invited the Napiers to travel to New York for a series of meetings. They warned the couple not to get their hopes up—there was a two percent chance their project would be greenlighted. But in 2017, Home Town made it onto HGTV’s lineup.
News about the show zipped around town. “There was a lot of excitement and anticipation,” says Amanda Roll, tourism director for Laurel’s county chamber. When the premiere episode aired, the Napiers invited the whole town to set up lawn chairs and watch an outdoor screening of it. A loud whoop sounded when the opening credits rolled.
Erin recalls feeling “weird” seeing herself on TV for the first time—then convincing her inner shy girl to shrug the whole thing off. “It felt like, if we were a part of it, it couldn’t be a bigger deal than the local news. You know what I mean?” Erin says. “Once you see yourself connected with it, it allows you to normalize a thing that is really not normal.”
Also not normal were the ratings: Home Town’s first episode was the second-highest-rated series premiere in HGTV history. Suddenly, the Napiers had a powerful platform, and they were ready to use it. “Our ultimate goal,” Ben says, “is to show that small towns in America are more than what meets the eye. We want people to understand that they still matter.”
The foundation of Home Town’s success is Erin and Ben’s relationship. The two just like each other. When Ben says he can make a buffet out of old porch windows, Erin believes him. When she turns rolling pins into wall art, he tells her she’s brilliant. Though Erin stands on an apple box when she’s filmed next to Ben, she must still crane her neck to look up at him while he speaks. As she does so, still grinning like that smitten freshman, he keeps his arm slung around her shoulders. “We just respect each other and enjoy each other’s company,” Ben says.
In 2018, the couple welcomed a daughter, Helen. Suddenly, their ideal work-life balance—filming a TV show together that showcased their individual talents—got a lot more complicated. A typical workday can last from sunup to sundown, with the Napiers racing between three or four job sites all over town—not to mention checking in on Laurel Mercantile and Scotsman General Store, two downtown shops they opened after signing on to the show.
They say they have good and not-good-at-all days, but they’re doing their best to make it work. They get up extra early (read: 5 a.m.) so they’re ready to spend time with Helen when she awakes. They employ a nanny—someone who once babysat Erin—and call on their parents when they need help. They also say no. A lot. “Work is never more important than Helen,” Erin says.
Neither is pleasing their fans. “The worst part of fame is finding ways to keep Helen protected from it,” Ben says. “When we go out as a family, making sure people don’t try to take her photo is tricky. We’re very grateful people love the show and are excited to see us, but we also have to remember Helen didn’t sign up for this.”
Amanda Roll says the chamber receives calls every day asking where the Napiers live. “They ask innocently; these aren’t people who would normally trespass,” she says. “They just feel like they know Ben and Erin. So there’s an unspoken rule in our community: Don’t tell where the show’s homes are, including theirs.”
The Napiers are grateful, but they understand there’s only so much that can be done. The irony of exposing the world to Laurel is that Laurel is now exposed to the world. “We know we can’t give Helen the childhood we had because of our careers and how our lives have changed,” Ben says. “But regardless, we want to provide her with a loving set of parents who are present and protect her.”
There are still a few things the Napiers dream about for Laurel. More downtown parking spaces, for one thing. Fewer tornadoes (they’ve filed a request with God on that one). And an independent bookshop. “If anyone is interested in moving to a small town and opening a bookstore, we’ll be your first patrons,” Ben says. (They might also be the first celebrities to hold a book signing there, as both have new home-design manuscripts in the works.)
Each day, when the two climb the stairs to their offices in the second-story loft they once called home, they marvel at how much Laurel has changed. “Even just the amount of foot traffic we pass, it’s incredible,” Ben says. “Downtown Laurel is bustling.”
Still, the Napiers say they hope their hometown never “arrives.” “I don’t want to live somewhere that’s perfect, and I wouldn’t want to visit somewhere that was,”
Ben says. “When there’s no grit or grime, you don’t notice the things that shine.”
“Erin and I both fell in love with St. Augustine before we met each other,” Ben says. “We go every chance we get. It’s like a home away from home for us.” Erin, whose father received his doctorate through a long-distance program based in St. Augustine, says she’s traveled there regularly since she was ten. “It’s the oldest city in America, and it’s the easiest way to go to Europe without going to Europe,” she says. “It’s just magical. I love that city. Ben went in college before we met. I couldn’t believe he had been there—it’s just not as common for people from south Mississippi to go there.”
Ben & Erin’s Favorite Laurel Spots
Burks’ Barber Shop
Located inside Guild & Gentry, a dapper downtown men’s clothier, this old-fashioned barber shop is the fulfillment of a dream for Ben’s college buddy, Jeremy Williams, who lost his corporate job a few years ago. When Jeremy told Ben he was considering barber school, Ben saw the passion in his eyes. “I told him to do it—he’d always have at least one customer. He’s actually had so many people come in, he had to set up an online appointment system. People were getting upset having to wait in line behind a dozen other people. He’s just good at what he does.”
Many of Erin’s favorite things, from cake stands to floral prints to casserole dishes, can be found at this shop, often compared to HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia Market. Every last item is made in the United States. “You can feel the love and the care that goes into making every product that’s in our store, and also choosing it and curating it,” Erin says. “It’s not fluff; it’s not filler. It’s really good, heirloom-quality things.”
Lauren Rogers Museum of Art
Open since 1923, this is the state’s oldest art museum, named for the original owner of the grand Georgian Revival abode in which it is housed. It features a vast collection of American Indian baskets as well as works by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. “People come from all over the world to see the collections,” Erin says. “That’s something I grew up knowing about my town: I’m from a place that’s about making things, and it’s about art and culture.”
Scotsman General Store
This old-fashioned shop, whose name nods to Ben’s Scottish heritage, is a place for glass-bottle sodas, candy cigarettes, and Ben’s signature flannel shirts. Visitors may also sit by the fireplace and watch Ben and his team build furniture for the show in the adjoining woodshop. “It’s a dream,” Ben says. “We get really creative and build one-of-a-kind pieces. The woodshop is my favorite place to be when I’m not with my girls.”
Sweet Somethings Bakery
Situated in a 1923 downtown building, this nostalgic bakery fed Ben a little too well for a while. “I built them some furniture, and when it came time for payment, I struck up a deal,” Ben says. “I said, ‘How about if I just have an unlimited tab?’ They jumped at the opportunity. They owed me several thousand dollars’ worth of furniture, and they figured I would never eat that much in flour and sugar—which I sort of took as a challenge.” Alas, he couldn’t rise to the challenge forever—he’s a national TV host, after all—so he now limits his intake of the bakery’s secret-recipe chocolate chip cookies. He says it isn’t easy for him: “They’re the best cookies in the world.”
“Southerners don’t need to be told to travel hungry,” Ben says. According to him, no matter where you eat downtown, you’re not going to have a bad meal. “PDI—Phillips Drive-In—is the oldest restaurant in town, and they make the best burger in Laurel,” he says. “Pearl’s Diner was featured on the show, and the food is phenomenal. I’m not going to lie to you, though: It’s really hard to get in there and eat because it’s so popular. But if you can’t, right down the street is Cafe LaFleur. Don’t come to Laurel expecting to have one particular experience, and if you can’t have that, you’re not going to be happy. If you look around, there is a lot going on in this little town.”
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.
Slicing through downtown Pensacola all the way to the bay, Palafox Street is known as the city’s core cultural artery. It’s a distinction the street has enjoyed for the past two-and-a-half centuries, during which it has been subject to—and shaped by—British, Spanish, and American rule. In 1764, the Brits laid it out as a central vertical line on the city’s grid, naming it George Street after King George III and lining one of its blocks with a grassy public square. When the Spanish seized power in 1781, they renamed the street after General Jose de Palafox y Melzi and called the square Ferdinand VII. The United States acquired Florida in 1819 and left the names alone, even as Pensacola became the territory’s new capital. Andrew Jackson was named Florida’s first governor and gave his inauguration speech in Plaza Ferdinand. (A bust of the soon-to-be president still sits in the square.) Today, the varied architecture along Palafox—Georgian Revival, Spanish Baroque, Neoclassical Revival—offers evidence of its long and layered backstory. So do storefront awnings supported by nineteenth-century wrought-iron columns and oversized restaurant windows that recall the days before air conditioning. But despite these historical flourishes, Palafox remains a place locals and visitors traverse every day—to shop, dine, go to a show, even hop on a boat for a scuba trip. The street has a past that’s impossible to ignore, but its present is every bit as compelling.
Named for Andrew Jackson and situated in the bones of a nineteenth-century mercantile, Jackson’s is the grande dame of Pensacola’s fine-dining scene. Request a table by the window facing Plaza Ferdinand and order bacon-wrapped oysters, prime steaks, and locally caught snapper. The wine list is award-winning, and the cocktails are some of the best—and strongest—in town.
Pensacola Museum of Art
Housed in a historic jail, this University of West Florida museum showcases works from the likes of Picasso, Warhol, Chagall, and Matisse inside former cells. This spring, check out the area’s best new talent at an exhibit by UWF’s graduating art students.
Owner and Pensacola native Katy Nagel curates all the clothing, scarves, and jewelry in this sophisticated shop. Browse for denim and leopard-print bangles while sipping a glass of bubbly. Your dog is welcome to join you while you shop.
World of Beer
Yes, this brew emporium with more than 500 varieties is part of a fifty-three-location chain—but its founders, Scott Zepp and Matt LaFon, grew up in Pensacola and moved back after hitting it big. This location is their baby. Grab a seat on the dog-friendly patio, order a chilled glass of Pensacola Bay Riptide Amber, and enjoy the Florida sunshine.
Opened as a vaudeville theater in 1925, this Spanish Baroque playhouse hosts performances nearly every day, from concerts by the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra to Cats. In the summer, it also screens classic movies selected by local vote.
Old Hickory Whiskey Bar
Female-owned and -operated, this clubby hangout offers more than 600 whiskey varieties (and a full cocktail menu, too). Its name is a nod to Andrew Jackson’s nickname; he once lived across the street. Sit back in a leather chair and ogle the floor-to-ceiling whiskey-bottle “library” before selecting your pour.
Scuba Shack Pensacola
Situated on the bay, Pensacola’s oldest dive shop sells the latest scuba equipment and takes adventurers to world-class sites on the fifty-foot boat parked right off its dock. It also offers equipment rentals and air fills.
Innerlight Surf & Skate
Since 1969, this local mainstay has been Pensacola’s go-to surf shop. Browse the aisles for O’Neill bathing suits, Reef sandals, Chris Christenson surfboards, and Blue Angels merchandise (the Navy’s legendary flight demonstration squad is based in Pensacola).
Bubba’s Sweet Spot
Owned by Pensacola native and famed pro golfer Bubba Watson, this gourmet candy store sells saltwater taffy, swirl lollipops, ice cream, and branded mint “golf balls.” Watson lives nearby and has a serious sweet tooth—don’t be surprised if you bump into him by one of the candy jars.
This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound.
In North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians found a way to take care of their people: In 1997, they opened a casino on their lands. Now South Carolina’s Catawba tribe wants to do the same. But there is a problem: The land the Catawba have settled upon for their casino—land they assert belonged to their ancestors—is also claimed by the Cherokee. As accusations fly and politicians take sides, two tribes that warred for centuries find themselves at odds once again. Only this time, what they are battling over isn’t water or captives or trade routes. It’s tourists.
An ancient story tells of a battle over hunting grounds that took place between the Cherokee and the Catawba centuries ago. Passed down through generations, the tale describes a violent clash between the two tribes deep in the southern Piedmont. For three days and three nights, they fought without ceasing, until both sides feared they might perish. On the fourth day, their leaders met in secret on the land to which they both laid claim. Instead of continuing to wage war on one another, they decided to create a boundary and divide the grounds. It was better, they determined, to live with only part of the land than to die in the struggle for it all.
In western North Carolina, in a fog-ribboned valley among the peaks of the Smoky Mountains, 16,000 Cherokee reside within the Qualla Boundary. Spanning some 56,000 acres, the land has waterfalls and forests, hiking trails and trout-filled streams. Outsiders often refer to this territory as a reservation, but it was not given to the Cherokee by the government—tribal members assembled it through a series of purchases during the early nineteenth century. In 1925, it was placed in federal trust.
Of course, the Boundary (as residents call it) has been Cherokee-claimed land for hundreds of years, along with vast territory throughout the southeastern United States. When Europeans began encountering the Cherokee in the sixteenth century, they estimated there were more than fifty Cherokee villages with a combined population of 100,000.
Those numbers nosedived when European diseases, especially smallpox, ravaged the tribe. By the time of the American Revolution, only 20,000 Cherokee survived. Those who remained fought alongside the British, believing King George’s 1763 proclamation that he would forbid any white settlements in or west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Their allegiance would prove costly in lives and land. Thousands died in the war, and the tribe wound up forfeiting most of their South Carolina acreage. Still, after the fighting ended, the Cherokee managed to establish a capitol (New Echota, in northwest Georgia), develop a written language (thanks to a now-famous tribal member named Sequoyah), and print the first American Indian newspaper (The Cherokee Phoenix, which included articles in both Cherokee and English). Though they had suffered greatly during the Revolution, the Cherokee experienced a renaissance.
Then, in 1830, the Indian Removal Act was signed into law, forcing five Southeastern tribes to give up their ancestral lands and move to federal territory west of the Mississippi. Of the 16,000 Cherokee sent to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, only 11,000 survived. “It was an incredible blow to a vibrant nation,” says Russ Townsend, the tribe’s historic preservation officer.
Some of the Cherokee who marched to Oklahoma eventually made their way back, joining the approximately 1,000 tribe members who had either been allowed to stay or who had hidden in the mountains. It would be almost four decades before the North Carolina government formally recognized them as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. And it would be sixty years more before the value of their land in the Qualla Boundary unexpectedly skyrocketed: In 1935, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established along the Boundary’s northern border.
Suddenly, hundreds of cars full of families began driving through the Boundary on their way to the park. By the 1950s, even more cruised into town to hop on the newly constructed Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds nearly 500 miles from the Boundary to Virginia. The Cherokee found themselves in the center of a tourism boom.
They did all they could to capitalize on it. “Roadside Chiefs” stood in dramatic headdresses outside souvenir shops, beating drums and beckoning passersby to come in. One-story motels opened along the main drag. Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama about the history of the Cherokee people, took to the stage in an outdoor amphitheater. The economic engine of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians began to hum.
But business was always seasonal. June through September, hotels were full and restaurants had waits; October through May, most of those hotels and restaurants closed. With such sporadic income, Cherokee poverty rates hovered in the double digits, occasionally jumping to fifty percent. It wasn’t until 1994 that the tribal council authorized a new kind of tourism, one that would take place entirely indoors all year long. That kind of tourism was gaming.
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort is home to nearly 3,000 dinging, blinking slot machines. Open since 1997, it offers games like blackjack, roulette, and poker at 147 tables, day and night. Invitation-only gaming rooms see tens of thousands of dollars won and lost in a single hand. The casino is home to a mammoth spa and a 3,000-seat concert venue, ten restaurants and a sparkling pool lined with cabanas. Eleven-hundred guest rooms are spread among its three towers, making it the largest hotel in the Carolinas. “Everyone who comes here for the first time is shocked at the scale,” says Brian Saunooke, the resort’s regional vice president of marketing and a Cherokee tribal member.
The resort’s sister property, Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel, opened sixty miles southwest in Murphy in 2015 and occupies roughly one-third the space. Together, the casinos see five million visitors a year. The nearest gaming resorts that can compare are four states west in Biloxi, Mississippi.
It all amounts to big business for the Cherokee. Last year, the resorts’ profits totaled $400 million, according to the Bristol Herald Courier. After expenses (including Harrah’s unpublished management fee), the tribe distributes the resort’s revenue. Each tribal member receives two checks a year (Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, says those checks currently add up to approximately $12,000); those pursuing secondary education also receive financial aid. Over the years, the money has gone toward an $83 million hospital, affordable housing, healthcare supplements, a Cherokee language-immersion academy for tribal children, and a K-12 school system. Cultural attractions—the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, Unto These Hills—are heavily supported by gaming revenue.
It is notable that not nearly as many people visit these cultural attractions as they do the casino. (The museum nets 82,000 visitors a year—less than two percent of the number who go to the casinos.) “People who come here to game, come here to game,” Sneed says. Yet even if gamers pay no attention to the history and culture of the tribe that owns the casino, even if they eschew the living-history village and museum and play, much of the money they spend flows back to the Cherokee. The house always wins.
The Catawba were among the fiercest American Indian tribes on the East Coast. Scattered across the Carolinas and Virginia, the Siouan-speaking people were seasoned hunters who knew their land intimately and guarded it mercilessly. Rather than fight the Catawba, many a smaller tribe assimilated into it. When the Spanish arrived in the region in 1540, they estimated the Catawba population to be 25,000.
With the entrance of Europeans, the Catawba saw an opportunity to leverage their hunting skills and take part in the fur trade. “Fur was the first and most popular trade in the New World,” says Bill Harris, the Catawba chief since 2011. “Animal hides outperformed cotton, indigo, and rice.” But maintaining control of fur-trade routes was dangerous business, and the Catawba lost many lives in defense of their territory.
Then, in the 1730s, smallpox broke out. It was an adversary against which the powerful tribe was utterly defenseless. Within months, half the population perished. Twenty years later, a second outbreak killed still more. The English began moving onto Catawba land with impunity, leading the weakened tribe to negotiate a 1760 treaty with King George’s surrogates in America. The Catawba relinquished the majority of their land in exchange for sworn protection of 144,000 acres along the modern-day border of South Carolina and North Carolina. Undeterred, English settlers continued to encroach.
During the Revolutionary War, the Catawba’s distrust of the English spurred them to side with the Patriots. Yet even their fortuitous choice of antagonists didn’t ultimately serve them: By the early 1800s, the tribe’s numbers had dwindled to approximately 100—a number so small, the Catawba were exempt from forced relocation and the Trail of Tears. In 1840, the impoverished few who remained sold their South Carolina acreage and moved to Cherokee lands in western North Carolina.
The arrangement didn’t last long. The two tribes, who didn’t share a common language and had a history tainted with aggression, did not mix well. Old wounds broke open, made even more painful by the trauma the Cherokee had suffered during the recent expulsion. Within two years, most of the Catawba left, returning to settle on 630 acres of South Carolina land deeded to them by a sympathetic businessman.
And that is where the tribe resides today, near the banks of the Catawba River, next to Rock Hill, South Carolina, and thirty miles south of Charlotte. Almost 3,400 people now call themselves Catawba, the majority of them living on the reservation or within its service area—the area in which members may enroll in social-service programs and receive financial assistance. Streets named Tomahawk and Singing Bird are lined with prefabricated houses and double-wide trailers. A small cultural center showcases turkey-feather headdresses and sells Catawba pottery. An annual cultural event, the Catawba Pow-Wow, has gone dormant due to funding issues. The tribe’s poverty rate is twenty-three percent, eleven points higher than the national average. “We haven’t prospered,” Harris says. “To grow, we need our own source of economic development.”
That source, Harris believes, should be a Catawba-owned gaming resort.
Kings Mountain, North Carolina, is close enough to Charlotte to be considered one of its suburbs, but far enough away to have missed out on most of its success. For much of the twentieth century it was a textile town, but the majority of its manufacturers have downsized or left. Its poverty rate is nineteen percent.
The old-timey downtown strip has a smattering of shops and restaurants—and plenty of “For Sale” signs posted in vacant storefronts. Situated in the midst of them is an old Colonial Revival post office, now a history museum, with an exterior brick wall featuring a giant mural of the Battle of Kings Mountain.
That 1780 battle, which Thomas Jefferson said helped “turn the tide of success” in the American Revolution, saw the Catawba take a pivotal role in the war. The tribe knew the lay of the land and served as scouts for the Patriots, helping them launch a surprise attack on a much-larger British militia. “We had home-court advantage,” Harris says. The Patriots’ unexpected victory at Kings Mountain and the British retreat that followed are the stuff of history books, and the humble town’s greatest claim to fame.
The Catawba’s contributions to that victory are also a primary reason the tribe believes they have a right to put a casino on seventeen acres of land in Kings Mountain, thirty miles northwest of their reservation in Rock Hill. Yes, the area in question is in North Carolina, and they are officially a South Carolina tribe. But the site is well within their designated service area. What’s more, “The borders we recognize in 2020 are not the borders of the Revolutionary War or earlier,” Harris says. “We have an ancestral right to be here.”
It is a point that matters greatly, as the Catawba cannot open a gambling resort on their South Carolina reservation. Twice they have sued the state for the right to do so, and twice they have lost. North Carolina, by contrast, has a clear precedent of allowing such an operation.
Kings Mountain Mayor Scott Neisler says residents of the town are overwhelmingly in favor of the proposed gaming resort. “It would be a real shot in the arm,” he says. A recent economic impact study estimates that such a resort would generate more than $350 million annually and create 4,000 jobs. It would also help the Catawba tribe build their own school, provide healthcare for their people, and get off government assistance.
But there are voices raised in opposition to the Kings Mountain casino, and the loudest among them is that of the Cherokee. They, too, claim Kings Mountain as their aboriginal turf. In fact, they ceded it to North Carolina near the turn of the nineteenth century. They have the documents to prove it.
What’s more, they don’t like the way the Catawba are going about things. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act has strict rules in place for tribes attempting to take new land into trust for the purposes of gambling. When Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis and Richard Burr of North Carolina submitted a bill for a Catawba-run Kings Mountain casino in March 2019, it exempted the tribe from some of the most stringent requirements—including paying for myriad impact studies and receiving the approval of the North Carolina governor.
But without this exemption, the process of acquiring land in Kings Mountain for a casino could take up to a decade and cost the Catawba millions of dollars they do not have. “The Catawba Nation has been treated unfairly by the federal government, and our legislation rights that wrong,” Graham says. “I hope this legislation will be quickly passed through the Congress and signed into law so we can once and for all bring resolution to this issue.”
But critics say that giving the Catawba a pass on these regulations—an unprecedented move in Indian gaming—is tantamount to letting the Catawba cut to the front of the line. “Instead of going through the proper channels with state and local officials in North Carolina, this casino is trying to circumvent the traditional process,” says Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina.
Cherokee Chief Sneed agrees. “No other tribe has received this sort of treatment,” he says. “We all have to play by the rules.”
Of course, Sneed has plenty of reasons to oppose the casino that have nothing to do with policy. If a Catawba gaming resort is built in Kings Mountain, it will no doubt siphon off a portion of the tourists who currently travel up I-85 to Harrah’s Cherokee to gamble. The degree to which it will impact the resort, no one knows. But Harris says that’s no reason to oppose the Catawba tribe’s efforts: “Greed should not be the thing that says, ‘You aren’t entitled to it.’”
Sneed bristles at this kind of narrative, which he summarizes as: “Wealthy tribe oppresses poor tribe.” In fact, he says, there’s more behind the Catawba casino than most people realize.
Wallace Cheves is the owner of Sky Boat Gaming, the developer of the Catawba’s proposed casino in Kings Mountain. According to the Charlotte Observer, since 2015, Cheves donated almost $50,000 to the three senators sponsoring the casino bill. In 2016, he also co-chaired Graham’s presidential campaign. What’s more, Kings Mountain attorney and North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore happens to be a lawyer for Sky Boat Gaming. (Moore has recused himself from commenting on the project.)
According to the Charlotte Observer, the wealthy Greenville, South Carolina, businessman has had a long career in gaming, beginning with a video-poker company, then a sweepstakes company, then a riverboat gambling operation. Some of his businesses have wound up in court; at least one was raided by government officials. “He’s a bad actor,” Sneed says.
But the Cherokee aren’t without their own operatives. The tribe’s political action committee (PAC) spent $135,000 lobbying in Raleigh last year and donated $162,000 to political campaigns on both sides of the aisle, making it among the largest and most influential PACs in North Carolina. Under pressure from the Cherokee, thirty-eight (out of fifty) North Carolina senators have signed a letter to the United States Indian Affairs Committee opposing a Catawba casino. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has also come out against it.
It’s all fascinating to Jim Morrill, a longtime Charlotte Observer political reporter who has covered Indian gaming extensively. With behind-the-scenes negotiations, ugly accusations, and billions of dollars at stake, “It’s sort of the Indian War of the twenty-first century,” he says.
One day soon—no one knows exactly when—the United States Department of the Interior will render a decision on whether the Catawba may move forward with their plans for a gaming resort in Kings Mountain. If the Catawba prevail, the ruling is sure to be contested. If they do not? “I really don’t know,” Harris says. “I don’t know any other card I have to play.”
Regardless of the decision, it is sure to become part of a story that both the Cherokee and the Catawba tell for generations to come. A story of a great battle over history, over land rights, over survival. One in which boundaries will either be redrawn or harden into stone. As with most stories involving these two tribes, there will be casualties along the way. And this time, common ground seems impossible to find.
Catawba Cultural Attractions
Catawba Cultural Center
A small museum showcases the artifacts and history of the Catawba tribe; the adjoining shop sells Catawba-made pottery, paintings, and jewelry.
Cherokee Cultural Attractions
Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Interactive displays illuminate the Cherokee tribe’s 11,000-year history. Contact the museum about cultural heritage opportunities, such as observing Cherokee dance performances and learning Cherokee-language basics.
Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual
Founded in 1946, this is the country’s oldest American Indian cooperative. Pick up baskets, carvings, masks, jewelry, and other items made within the Qualla Boundary.
Oconaluftee Indian Village
Take a guided tour of a recreated 1760s Cherokee village, complete with dancing villagers, weavers, and canoe builders. Don’t miss the medicinal gardens blooming with ancient remedies such as purple thistle, yellow root, and bloodroot.
Unto These Hills
First performed in 1950, this outdoor drama depicts the history of the Cherokee people from 1780 to the present, including a moving reenactment of their experiences on the Trail of Tears.
Cherokee Outdoor Attractions
Robert Trent Jones II designed this eighteen-hole public golf course with panoramic views of the Smokies.
With thirty miles of freestone streams, fly fishing here is legendary. More than forty local shops offer fishing permits, and many also sell flies, tackle, and bait.
The newly created Fire Mountain Trails offer ten miles of biking opportunities; options range from easy to highly technical.
Editor’s Note: Since this article was published, the U.S. Department of Interior approved the Catawba tribe’s request to put sixteen acres of land in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, into trust for a casino and resort. The Eastern Band of the Cherokees has promised to fight the decision in court.
This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound.
Where to Meet Locals
According to Teri Johnston, mayor of Key West
When Teri Johnston was sworn in as mayor of Key West last year, the occasion made headlines around the state. It wasn’t just because Johnston is only the second woman to serve as the town’s mayor in 190 years; she’s also among the first openly lesbian mayors in Florida. But even as out-of-towners gobbled up news of her victory, locals simply high-fived her as she strolled into City Hall. “I’ve been here twenty years,” says Johnston, sixty-eight. “The people here are my neighbors and my friends.”
She’s convinced these friends of hers constitute Key West’s greatest selling point; after all, it is their fiercely independent spirit that gives the Conch Republic its colorful personality. So where should a visitor go to meet some of them? Johnston recommends heading to the Coffee Plantation Realty Cafe: “You’ll always find locals there having coffee and conversation.” Chat about art with the owners, Diane and Theo Glorie, whose works are for sale on the walls, and be sure to ask Theo about the guitars he has on display. “He loves to talk music,” Johnston says.
Hungry? Head half an hour east to Cudjoe Key, where landmark bar and grill The Square Grouper serves up seared-tuna tacos and local girl power. “Lynn Bell is the owner, and Dee Marius is the sous chef,” Johnston says. She recommends ordering Dee’s famous almond-encrusted grouper or her jasmine rice bowl, washing it down with a Crazy Lady blonde ale from Key West’s Waterfront Brewery.
Speaking of drinks, Johnston says Schooner Wharf on Key West’s historic Harbor Walk is an ideal place to sip them with locals. She recommends arriving at noon to hear Key Westerner Michael McCloud play tropical favorites garnished with humorous anecdotes about his time on the island. “There’s a reason Michael has been playing thirty years,” she says. “He’s incredibly talented and definitely someone you want to say hello to.”
Another person worth getting to know? George Fernandez, who, along with his partner, Sam Trophia, founded the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory in 2003. “Back then, the area of Duvall Street where they put the conservatory wasn’t popular with tourists,” Johnston says. “George is a risk taker who believed it would work, and it really paid off.” Johnston says besides chatting with Fernandez, visitors will want to spend some time checking out the conservatory. “Sitting in the lush greenery with butterflies flying around is one of the most unique and relaxing things you’ll do in your life,” she says. “I love being there.”
Before she became mayor, Johnston loved to dive, and though she’ll refrain from the risky hobby during her term, she still snorkels. “We have one of the three remaining living coral reefs in the world,” she says. “I could never stay totally away.” She recommends chartering a tour through locally owned Sebago Watersports, making sure to ask for the legendary Captain Paul McGrail, one of the company’s founders. “He’ll be able to show you everything there is to see on the water. He’ll also tell you anything you want to know about life in Key West,” she says, then smiles with a wink. “Tell him the mayor sent you.”
Where to Drink
According to Paul Menta, founder of Key West First Legal Rum Distillery
“I’m not a moonshiner. I’m a sunshiner,” Paul Menta says, clutching a bottle of sixty-proof rum sweetened with Florida oranges. The man does not lie: He indeed distills his rum in broad daylight at the aptly named Key West First Legal Rum Distillery, which he founded in 2013. A former restaurateur with a passion for cocktails, Menta reasoned that this island 329 miles from Cuba ought to have its own rum. And judging by the 10,000 visitors who tour his distillery each year, he was onto something.
Menta, fifty-three, has lived in Key West since he was sixteen, which means he’s spent plenty of time sampling its watering holes. “We’re a drinking town—a drinking town with a tourist problem,” he laughs. These days, he’s partial to Uva Wine, which offers varietals from small-batch vineyards, served behind a rustic wood bar. Uva allows food deliveries from Thirsty Mermaid Raw Bar next door so patrons can enjoy the eatery’s popular oysters without waiting hours in line for a table. “That’s my little secret,” Menta says with a wink.
He’s also a fan of the craft cocktails at Point5, a local hangout on the second level of a restored bungalow on Duval Street. He recommends ordering the Club Car, made with Blackwell Jamaican rum, Foro Amaro, and a brandied cherry, and served in a snifter (for coolness points).
If Menta feels like a casual sip at the end of a long day, he walks a block from work to the Boat House, a waterfront joint popular with fishermen in flip-flops. There he orders the Limey Bitch, an off-menu frozen concoction made with Key lime liqueur and Menta’s signature Bad Bitch rum. But if he really wants to live on the edge, he’ll take a taxi twenty minutes east to the Purple Porpoise Pub on Big Coppitt Key, an “epic” dive bar. “There are people there who haven’t left since the seventies,” he says. “Buy a T-shirt; you’ll be a legend.” But don’t, he cautions, drink the water. “It’s a beer-and-a-shot place,” he says. “For sanitary purposes.”
Where to Stay
According to Carol Wightman, co-owner of the Marquesa Hotel
When Carol Wightman moved from Miami to Key West in 1988, her plan was to help transform a nineteenth-century conch house into an elite hotel. Wightman, who had worked for years in advertising, had enthusiasm aplenty but not a speck of hospitality experience. “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” says Wightman, sixty-one. “I definitely thought the longest I’d be here is five years.”
Well, it’s been three decades, and Wightman now finds herself welcoming guests such as Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos and bestselling author Margaret Atwood to the Marquesa Hotel. Wightman and her partners recently expanded the hotel to include three more Old Town buildings, and its namesake restaurant—helmed by Graham Dailey of Iron Chef fame—is one of the highest-rated in the Keys.
Much of the credit belongs to Wightman, who continually refreshes the interiors to maintain the hotel’s modern-meets-historic aesthetic. (Think antique chairs covered in geometric-print fabric.) She wants guests who walk in—be they Jeff Bezos or Joe Blow—to feel as if they’ve come home. Albeit a home where the gardens are perfectly manicured, the iced tea freshly brewed, and the pools sparkling beneath the Florida sunshine.
Wightman can be a tough critic when she travels around the Keys, but she’s found several properties that hit the mark. Number one? Little Palm Island, which reopens in 2020 after two years of post-Irma renovations. Accessible only by boat or seaplane, it doesn’t have landlines or reliable cell service—and that’s exactly what Wightman appreciates. “It makes you slow down and reflect on the beauty of nature,” she says. “You start to realize most of us work way too hard.”
Wightman’s also a big fan of the Moorings in Islamorada, which she visits in the winter. “It’s what everyone envisions when they say ‘Florida Keys,’” she says. “It has classic architecture, palm trees, and a gorgeous beach.” She also recommends the Cheeca Lodge next door to the Moorings for its wide-ranging amenities, from deep-sea fishing to upscale dining. “You can park your car there and never once move it,” she says. “There’s really no reason to leave.”
Where to Eat
According to Daniel Schillinger, executive chef of Pierre’s Restaurant
To some, Pierre’s Restaurant is a glamorous Islamorada institution. To others, it’s a familiar backdrop from Netflix’s Bloodline. To still others, it’s a celebrity hotspot where you might see Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez. But to Daniel Schillinger, it’s pretty much a second home. “I’m here a lot,” says Schillinger, thirty-nine, with a smile.
Schillinger moved to Islamorada last fall to assume the executive chef post at Morada Bay restaurant group, which includes Pierre’s and its sister restaurant, Morada Beach Cafe. When he took the helm at the storied enterprise, he knew the bar was high. “Expectations are a big thing in the Keys, and my team and I understand that,” he says. “We work very hard.”
Schillinger has advice for diners coming to Pierre’s: Arrive early and make a night of it. “Get to our lounge between 5:30 and 6:00, tell our bartenders the kind of drink you like, and have them create something special for you. Then sit on the porch with it and watch the sun go down.” When you’re ready for dinner, ask for the southwest corner table on the veranda. “That one’s my favorite,” he says. “It offers shade but has a great view of the water.”
Wondering what to order? Schillinger says go for the seafood (“you’re in the Keys, after all”), perhaps the Florida lobster curry served in a coconut shell. “That’s a dish that will never leave our menu,” he says. If you still have energy after dinner, walk next door to Morada Beach Cafe, where you can kick off your shoes in the sand and enjoy a nightcap while live music plays. “It just feels like the Keys,” Schillinger says.
When he isn’t at his own restaurants for a meal, Schillinger heads half an hour north to Hobo’s Cafe in Key Largo. “I love it because it’s old-school food,” he says. “I like the local yellowtail served Godfather-style with white wine, tomatoes, oregano, and parsley.”
When Schillinger goes down to Key West, he doesn’t miss a chance to dine at Louie’s Backyard. “It’s a bit highfalutin, right on the water with a great wine list,” he says. “I like their grilled shrimp, octopus, and garlic sausage with white beans. Their food is eclectic and cool.”
But his favorite Key West spot is a locals’ hideaway called Blue Heaven. “I believe it’s their best restaurant,” he says. It isn’t on the main drag, nor is it fancy, but that doesn’t mean the shrimp and grits or the “Yellow Submarine” snapper sandwich are anything but excellent. “And don’t get me started on the pies,” he says. “Their chocolate pecan pie and Key lime pie are some of the best around.”
Where to Buy Art
According to Michelle Nicole Lowe, proprietor of Michelle Nicole Lowe Art Gallery
Michelle Nicole Lowetried to be a desk-job person. Honestly, she did. After graduating from high school in Miami, she attended the University of Florida, where she took courses like macroeconomics and calculus to earn a degree in finance. A gig with Accenture in Washington, D.C., followed, but there were two problems: One, Lowe knew deep down she was an artist; and two, she discovered she hated cold winters.
After two years that felt like twenty, Lowe quit her job and moved to Italy to attend art school. From there, it was off to balmy Islamorada, which, in the late aughts, was in the midst of building a fledgling arts district. “New galleries were popping up all over town, with artists doing their work right out of them,” says Lowe, thirty-four. “I wanted to be a part of it.”
And part of it she is, earning a spot on the cover of the Keys’ Culture Magazine and drawing thousands of visitors a year to Michelle Nicole Lowe Art Gallery. She says she’s inspired by the water—her husband, Camp Walker, is a professional fishing guide—as well as by other Keys artists she’s come to know and support. “There’s Dwayne and Cindy King, who’ve owned Old Road Gallery in Tavernier since I was a little girl,” she says. “They do incredible work with bronze.” She also loves visiting printmaker and Keys native Valerie Perreault’s Portside Studio and Gallery in the Islamorada Arts District for her whimsical interpretations of the island and its nature.
In Key West, Lowe likes Adam Russell and Kelly Lever’s Key West Pottery, a small shop situated on Duval Street. “Their stuff is colorful and eclectic,” she says. She also recommends popping into Gallery on Greene, helmed by art dealer Nance Frank: “Nance showcases all kinds of artists, including many Cuban artists, and they’re all collection-worthy.”
Lowe says the laid-back Keys vibe makes it possible for creatives of all stripes to defy traditional boundaries. “Anything goes here—fashion-wise, lifestyle-wise, art-wise,” she says. “There’s a lot of freedom to try new things.”
Where to Explore Culture
According to Arlo Haskell, executive director of Key West Literary Seminar
When tickets become available in February for the Key West Literary Seminar taking place the following January, all 400 typically sell out in two-and-a-half minutes. That’s partly because the seminar features Nobel Prize winners, United States poets laureate, and bestselling authors (this year’s speaker lineup includes Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger), but it’s also because Key West has a literary history that never fails to intrigue. Authors such as Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Robert Frost lived and wrote here, and Arlo Haskell—who runs the literary seminar—has a theory as to why: “Writers are drawn to edges,” says Haskell, forty-one. “Key West offers them, both in its geography and in its culture.”
Haskell, who grew up twenty miles east of Key West in Cudjo Key, oversees the Old Town Literary Walking Tour, which showcases the hangouts of Judy Bloom (she’s often behind the counter at her bookstore, Books and Books) and Thomas McGuane (he met his wife—who also happens to be Jimmy Buffett’s sister—in the Chart Room Bar). Another stop on the tour? The Monroe County Public Library, where Tennessee Williams was often seen nosing through a book. (Be sure to take a gander at his old library card and listen to recordings of his public readings.)
Tennessee Williams fans should also check out the Custom House Museum, which showcases a permanent collection of the playwright’s paintings. “Not a lot of people know he painted, but it was a very important part of his life,” Haskell says.
Something else most people don’t realize? Ernest Hemingway didn’t have just one Key West address. His Spanish Colonial home in Old Town is a major draw, but during Haskell’s tour, you can also eyeball Papa’s first Key West apartment on Simonton Street the place where he wrote A Farewell to Arms.
Haskell says another Keys cultural site too many visitors overlook is the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center in Islamorada. Not only does the two-story museum explore the Upper Keys’ modern history (including the formation of Henry Flagler’s Over-Sea Railway), it gives voice to the native people who once called the Keys home. “It’s really great,” he says. “They do an admirable job of presenting what’s known about the indigenous inhabitants of the area who were wiped out during the years of Spanish occupation.”
Where to Dive
According to Captain Spencer Slate, owner of Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures
Nine of Spencer Slate’s fingers have been surgically reattached. They have been reattached because they were bitten off by moray eels and barracuda. Eels and barracuda bit his fingers off because he was feeding them—he regards them as his pets. And even though his pets have taken off all but one of his fingers, he still brings them small fish twice a week with clients swimming alongside. “Nowadays, though, I’ve caved in and started wearing butcher gloves,” says Slate, seventy-one.
Slate has operated Captain Slate’s Scuba Adventures in Key Largo since 1978. During this time, his underwater stunts have been featured on the Discovery Channel and 60 Minutes. He’s also become something of a local legend, diving in a Santa Claus suit every Christmas and in a bunny costume each Easter. He’s been asked to transform into a swimming Cupid on Valentine’s Day, but that’s where he draws the line. “I ain’t putting a diaper on,” he says, making a cutthroat gesture with his surgically reattached fingers.
Slate says it isn’t hard to figure out why more than a million people dive in the Keys each year: It has the third-largest coral barrier reef system in the world, stretching from Miami to Key West. His go-to spot? Davis Reef, a coral reef outside Plantation Key that’s home to a submerged smiling Buddha and a long ledge teeming with tropical fish. “Every once in a while, you’ll see Jose, a resident hammerhead,” Slate says. “That makes it fun.”
After visiting Davis Reef, dodging Jose, and rubbing Buddha’s belly, head to nearby John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo for another religious experience: descending twenty-five feet to see the famed Christ of the Abyss statue. So clear is the water there, Slate says, even snorkelers can see the statue from the surface.
In the Middle Keys, the Over-Sea Railroad dive site lets experienced divers go 100 feet underwater to see parts of Henry Flagler’s original railroad bridge, which connected the Keys with mainland Florida in the early twentieth century. Slate says even at those depths, the site has good visibility—and that’s fortunate, because it’s covered in barracuda. “It’s no big deal, though,” he says. “They’re only aggressive if you’re a fish. I feed them out of my mouth.”
He’s not kidding. And he’s not quitting either, even after he retires in a few years. “Oh, I’ll never stop diving,” Slate says. “I’ve got to keep feeding my pets.”
Where to Fish
According to Captains Rick Stanczyk and Nick Stanczyk, co-owners of Bud N’ Mary’s Sportfishing Marina
If Islamorada is the “Sportfishing Capital of the World,” Bud N’ Mary’s Sportfishing Marina is its center of governance. Open since 1944, the bustling marina is home to Islamorada’s oldest and largest charter fishing fleet. Bud N’ Mary’s co-owners, brothers Rick Stanczyk and Nick Stanczyk, are royalty around here: Not only can they help you reel in “any fish that swims,” their family actually pioneered the sport of daytime swordfishing.
It would sound like bragging if it weren’t the truth. Islamorada has the good fortune of being surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico, which means the brothers can indeed take you saltwater fly fishing, backcountry sport fishing, or deep-sea fishing—yes, including daytime swordfishing. But be warned that Rick and Nick are two of the Keys’ most popular guides. If you want to book a charter trip with either of them, you’d better make a reservation at least six months in advance.
Rick, thirty-six, is an inshore fisherman, and one of his favorite places to take people is Flamingo, the southernmost headquarters of Everglades National Park. “I love getting into the backcountry waters and hooking snook and redfish. We also see porpoises and manatees.” For tarpon fishing, he heads to local bridges such as Long Key Bridge. “You have to be patient,” he says. “Any day you get one tarpon is a good day.”
Nick, thirty-four, specializes in swordfishing, taking clients thirty miles off the coast and battling the 100-plus-pound monsters into the boat. “It’s definitely something to see,” he says. He also reels in blackfin tuna, amberjack, and shark near Islamorada’s famous underwater mountains, the Islamorada Hump and the 409 Hump.
For reef fishing, Nick recommends Alligator Reef near Upper Matecumbe Key for yellowtail, snapper, and grouper; Conch Reef off the coast of Plantation Key for sailfish, mackerel, and wahoo. “People can’t believe how much they can catch here,” he says. “We make it easy to bring home dinner.”
Where to See Wildlife
According to Bette Zirkelbach, manager of the Turtle Hospital
Seven years ago, Bette Zirkelbach didn’t know much about sea turtles—except, of course, that they were cute and they were endangered. Today, she thinks of them as her children. “If I’m not at work, I miss them,” she says with a small smile, gently lifting one out of a tank to look it over.
Since 2012, Zirkelbach, fifty-three, has managed the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, the only hospital of its kind in the Keys. Since its founding in 1986, it has rescued, rehabilitated, and released more than 2,000 turtles. It also welcomes 80,000 visitors a year to tour its facility and meet its flapping patients. “I think that compassion is contagious,” she says. “When you see these guys up close, you can’t help but be moved to try to protect them.”
Zirkelbach, who moved to the Keys twenty years ago to work at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, believes the same can be said of all Keys wildlife—even creatures that aren’t quite so cuddly. “Sharks are very misunderstood,” she says. “We humans are not on their menu.” She recommends taking a backcountry schooner tour through the mangroves with Danger Charters, where you’ll see them feeding on marine life in the shallows. “Now that’s what they actually eat!” she says. “It can be very exciting to watch.”
To spot birds during migration, she says to head to Curry Hammock State Park on Grassy Key: “It has a fantastic hawk watch. You can see them perched everywhere.” If you want to observe flamingo-like roseate spoonbills wading in the shallows, go to Crane Point Hammock Museum and Wildlife Preserve in Marathon. “They’re definitely photo-worthy,” she says. She’s also a fan of Big Pine Key, where tiny Key deer roam the National Key Deer Refuge. “They’re an endangered species, and you’re almost guaranteed to see them when you go there,” she says.
Still, her favorite species will always be of the shell-covered variety, the sea turtle children to whom she must routinely say goodbye. At least, she says, the parting is a happy one. “When I see one of our healthy turtles going back into the wild, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Where to Enjoy Nightlife
According to Sushi, producer of 801 Cabaret
Every New Year’s Eve, thousands of mainlanders descend upon Key West. They come for its eighty-degree temps and its even-hotter parties. They also come for its stroke-of-midnight tradition since 1998: the descent of an eight-foot high-heeled shoe onto Duval Street, carrying inside it a drag queen who goes by a single name: Sushi. “That’s me, honey,” the fifty-two-year-old says, easing into a red banquette at the Key West club she runs, 801 Cabaret.
Sushi’s shoe drop has been seen all over the world, with CNN broadcasting it the past eleven New Year’s Eves. But the other 364 nights of the year, you won’t find Sushi inside a heel; you’ll find her wearing them while she produces two sold-out drag shows a night. “Our performances are quirky and fully accepting of everybody and anybody,” she says. “People love to come laugh with us.”
Sushi (legal name: Gary Marion) has lived in Key West twenty-five years, and in that time, she’s seen many a late night. She prides herself on her diverse taste in nightlife, from live-music hot spots like the Green Room (“It’s in this beautiful old conch house they just renovated—I love it”), to dive bars such as the Green Parrot (“It’s a great place to sit and people watch”), to a clothing-optional rooftop bar, Garden of Eden (“You get a great view of the whole city—wink, wink”).
Besides her own drag club, Sushi recommends LaTeDa for Randy Roberts’ cross-dressing celebrity impersonation show. “It’s amazing,” she says. “I mean, I almost cried. But then I sneezed, and I was fine.” For “something sassy,” she recommends the male revues at Bourbon Street Pub. And to end the night, she suggests singing “Only the Lonely” during karaoke at Bobby’s Monkey Bar. “Somehow,” she says, turning her palms skyward, “that’s where I always end up.”
To open an independent boutique hotel inside Atlanta’s perimeter is a big deal. (There are precious few in the city, for reasons upon which no one can quite agree.) But to open an independent boutique hotel above Atlanta’s most legendary strip club? Yes, that’s a big deal indeed.
Hotel Clermont is not shy about its building’s roots or the tenants on the basement level. Rather, it embraces its address—which, for most of the past century, belonged to the Clermont Motor Lodge, a seedy sleepover spot in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood. (Al Capone is rumored to have used it as an occasional hideout.) The below-ground floor became the Clermont Lounge in 1968, and it remains the only spot in town where many of the dancers have been performing longer than most patrons have been alive.
During renovations, Hotel Clermont signaled its unreserved embrace of the past by erecting the motor lodge’s original signage and giant radio tower on its roof. And if anyone still wondered if the anticipated new property might downplay its history, they needed only pay a visit after last summer’s grand opening. The lobby is a love letter to the hotel’s 1970s heyday, with low-slung couches, leafy houseplants, and palm-frond prints covering the check-in desk. The walls of the library lounge are hung with R-rated black-and-white photos of Clermont Lounge dancers, and biographies of Me Decade luminaries, such as Mick Jagger and John Lennon, fill the shelves. The ninety-four well-kept rooms have velvet headboards, lightbulb sconces, and record players; moody portraits by Atlanta College of Art graduate Sharon Shapiro nod to the women of the bottom floor.
Despite the hotel’s grand and gutsy entrance onto the Atlanta scene, its signature restaurant managed to upstage it. Tiny Lou’s, a French-American brasserie named for a burlesque dancer who disrobed here during the 1950s, has become a darling of food critics. The rich duck consommé! The first-rate service! The throwback dessert cart! Tiny Lou’s also earns serious points for being a unicorn in Atlanta’s food scene: a hotel restaurant where locals actually turn up.
On the rooftop of the six-story hotel, as far from the Clermont Lounge as you can get, the bar slings sidecar cocktails to crowds of twenty-somethings idling on lawn chairs. Some know they’re sitting atop a 1924 building that lives in Atlanta infamy. Some do not. But they all get that they’ve arrived at a happening boutique hotel where Atlanta’s cool kids flock, and that in itself is a pretty big deal.
Ponce City Market Hotel Clermont’s can’t-miss neighbor offers sixteen sprawling acres of shops, restaurants, fitness boutiques, and carnival games. Conceived by the developers who started New York’s Chelsea Market, Ponce City Market is located in a historic Sears distribution center and anchored by a massive food hall on the ground floor. Sample a Cuban sandwich from El Super Pan, shop for jeans at Ponce Denim Company, and take a sewing class at Top Stitch.
Stroll the BeltLine Exit through the back of Ponce City Market and find yourself on the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail, part of a pedestrian pathway that will one day encircle much of intown Atlanta. Follow it south, stopping for a coffee at Parish or a Patio Punch cocktail at Ladybird. Along the way, take in a linear photography exhibit showcasing Atlanta’s contributions to the civil rights movement. You’ll also encounter locals zipping around on everything from scooters to inline skates to hoverboards.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue ofSouthbound.
Thirty miles east of Cinderella Castle, Winter Park, Florida, promises magic of a different kind. Five sparkling lakes in this well-to-do Orlando suburb are connected by bougainvillea-draped canals. One such lake, Virginia, laps the shores of Rollins College, a liberal arts university renowned for its Spanish-Mediterranean-style architecture. The school sits at the southern end of Park Avenue, a brick-paved street that enchants locals and visitors alike with sidewalk cafes, upscale shops, and an azalea-filled park.
Stretching about a mile from Rollins College to the Winter Park Golf Course, Park Avenue’s commercial corridor beckons with more than 140 boutiques, restaurants, and museums, most of them situated along its eastern side. Its western edge is flanked by eleven-acre Central Park, home to bubbling fountains, shady oaks, and a rose garden. Saturday mornings, wander the Winter Park Farmers Market, where you can pick up everything from fresh sunflowers to locally milled sugar—your very own pixie dust.
Scenic Boat Tour
Winter Park came by its name honestly: In the late nineteenth century, it was the winter playground of monied Northeastern families. They built mansions on the shores of its lakes, and many of these grand houses can be seen during this one-hour pontoon boat tour, which departs from the banks of Lake Osceola. In addition to the homes—many designed by noted architect James Gamble Rogers—the excursion showcases ancient live oaks and narrow canals dug in the 1880s to transport pine.
The Morse Museum Charles Hosmer Morse, one of Winter Park’s wealthiest founders, did more than gift Central Park to the town; he passed on a love of art to his heir, who went on to amass the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Tiffany, whose father founded the legendary jewelry company, is famous in his own right for his work with stained glass. Browse his signature leaded-glass lamps, colorful windows, even jewelry of his own design. Don’t miss the Tiffany Chapel exhibit, a stunning mosaic-and-glass chapel interior he created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Briarpatch Open since 1980, this Winter Park institution is best known for its breakfast, especially its raspberry-and-brie-stuffed brioche French toast. Simple white tables and weathered-wood walls lend the place a homey feel, and longtime staffers treat patrons like family. Order a slice of housemade cake to go, such as the three-tier raisin-flecked carrot cake with thick cream cheese frosting.
Tuni When Tuni Blackwelder and the eldest of her five daughters, Paige, opened this hip boutique in 1986, they wanted to offer edgy, high-end clothes that would appeal to women of different generations. Three decades later, that’s still their mission, which is why they carry everything from Nicole Miller sequined jackets to Rebecca Minkoff fur mules. Personal stylists are always on hand to help pull together the perfect ensemble.
Rollins College The oldest institute of higher education in Florida, Rollins’ campus was recently named the most beautiful in America by the Princeton Review. Admire the Spanish-Mediterranean architecture, including Knowles Memorial Chapel, designed by famed ecclesiastical architect Ralph Adams Cram (the man behind the University of Notre Dame chapel). Pay a visit to the college’s Cornell Fine Arts Museum, which showcases both an impressive array of contemporary works and the only Old Masters collection in Orlando. Or simply stroll the lakeside path and watch the college’s nationally ranked water ski team train on Lake Virginia.
Prato Atlanta’s Concentrics Restaurants conceptualized this bustling Italian eatery, a perennial hotspot for Winter Park’s see-and-be-seen crowd. Emphasis on see: The window-paned doors look onto Central Park, and year-round patio seating offers the perfect spot for people-watching. Order the braised-veal meatballs and a groovy cocktail (try the Lou Dog, made with gin, mint, cardamom bitters, and freshly squeezed honeydew juice), and enjoy the show.
The Alfond Inn Theodore and Barbara Alfond, 1968 Rollins College graduates, have gifted their alma mater hundreds of works of contemporary art over the years. Their namesake inn, which Rollins owns, displays pieces from the Alfond collection throughout the 112-room property. Admire paintings, photographs, sculptures, and mixed-media works while sipping a glass of wine in the domed solarium. The AAA Four Diamond property also has a pool, fitness center, and popular restaurant, Hamilton’s Kitchen.
This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue ofSouthbound.
Since 1961, Atlanta magazine, the city’s premier general interest publication, has served as the authority on Atlanta, providing its readers with a mix of long-form nonfiction, lively lifestyle coverage, in-depth service journalism, and literary essays, columns, and profiles.