Best of Broward-Palm Beach® 2016 - (2024)

In October 1962, the State of Florida was an armed encampment. Troops weredispersed from Jacksonville to Key West. Hundreds of military ships lingered notfar offshore. Terrified South Floridians descended on grocery stores as if themother of all hurricanes were on its way.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding, and the United States was closer to thebrink of nuclear war with the Russians than at any other point in history. Themilitary leaders in JFK's inner circle were almost unanimous in arguing that thecountry must invade Cuba to stop the proliferation of nuclear missiles so closeto our shores.

Few places are appropriately dramatic enough to ponder the near end of the world,but Peanut Island in Palm Beach County is one such locale. At one point theisland was slated to house a terminal for shipping peanut oil but ended up ashome to a nuclear-bomb shelter. If the Russkies happened to strike whilePresident Kennedy was hanging out at Joe and Rose's place on Palm Beach, PeanutIsland would have become his temporary home.

In order to explore this local piece of Cold War history, I grabbed my tent,sleeping bag, a pint of Jim Beam, and a copy of Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy'smemoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I then headed off to this 79-acre, man-madeclump of pine trees and sand just off Riviera Beach. For those who are not amongthe boated gentry, there are two places from which to catch a water taxi toPeanut Island: the Riviera Beach Marina and Phil Foster Park. The ride will setyou back five bucks.

When I set foot on the island, the area around the docks was swarming with boatsidling in the water, the passengers drinking beer and soaking up the sun.Pelicans circled the island, occasionally dive-bombing into the water to snap upfish. Hard by the docks were the reserved campsites, cute little sandboxesadorned with cute little palm trees, the camping equivalent of a plannedcommunity. One of these will set you back $16.50 per night and afford zeroprivacy. Of course I, as an explorer, headed instead to the section reserved for"primitive" camping.

This camping area is set in a dense thicket of pines and sabal palms on thenorthwest section of the island. Depending on the tides, you may have to wadeinto the water and around the wildly tilting trees just to find a spot. I found asecluded campsite under cover of woods, pitched camp, and went off in search ofthe Kennedy bunker.

The bunker is run by the Palm Beach Maritime Museum, and tours are offered fourtimes per day. A sign is still attached to the chainlink fence surrounding thebunker that reads, "Keep Out. Magazine Area." This was the official story whenthe bunker was being built, that it was actually a munitions dump.

I and about a dozen other tourists entered through the steel door, painted in aqueer camouflage of green, peach, and tan. The entranceway is a circular tunnelmade of corrugated steel. We turned to the left and soon were in the room thatwould have housed John and Jackie and 18 others if nuclear war had broken outwhile they were in Palm Beach. The shelter is thought to be made of steel,several feet of concrete, and a lead shell. Nobody knows for sure, because theblueprints have never been found. Ten pairs of bunks used to fill the cozy room,along with enough cold military rations and other supplies to last for 30 days.Kennedy visited the bunker in 1961, along with Secretary of Defense RobertMcNamara.

Very few of the original furnishings remain from when the bunker was operative.In later years it became a home for vagrants on the island and then was takenover by the museum in 1995.

Back at camp I dug into Thirteen Days (as well as the bottle of Jim Beam),Robert Kennedy's minute-by-minute account of the inner workings of thePresident's brain trust reads more like a political science primer than a tautthriller, but the essential terror of the time is adequately conveyed. The worldwas on the verge of all-out nuclear war. Nobody on either side wanted this tohappen, but nobody seemed to be really in control. One wrong move and theprecipice to carnage might have been crossed.

By the time darkness fell, the tide had encroached far enough that I wasstranded within the pine trees, alone. The water crashed on shore, drowning outall other sounds. It was peculiar to be so secluded, yet surrounded by lights. Tothe north I could see the Blue Heron bridge, to the west the lights of RivieraBeach, to the east the comfy homes of Singer Island.

Then a series of horn blasts shattered the quiet, giving notice that theSunCruz Casino boat moored nearby was on its way out for the night. It shook meout of my reverie, and I realized the Cold War was long over. Civilization hadprevailed.

Peanut Island bunker, Palm Beach Maritime Museum, 561-842-8202.

The last place I expected to findmagic was in a crackerbox strip of a store on West Sunrise Boulevard. You knowthe kind: bars on the windows, an empty side lot littered with straws and Matervabottles, a skinny egret picking its way along the store's chainlink fence.

This mystic botánica is a world away from the ivy-covered cottages foundin fairy books, but the place still swells with ready magic. Candles stacked onshelves promise celestial doorways to saints like Santa Barbara or thealmond-eyed prankster Elegua. Two skinny dollars, a match, and a prayer couldbring me quick cash, true love, or lip-smacking vengeance.

I pluck a red Santa Barbara candle from the ranks. A santero once told me thatthis saint favored me, that she would protect me from those who'd wish me harm ifI offered her red carnations or a candle every now and then. Couldn't hurt. Idecide to opt for a revenge candle as well. You never know when a littleretribution might come in handy.

Deeper into the store, I find powders with names like Jinx Removal and FastLuck housed in silver tins and red and black vodou dolls spilling from acardboard box. Sage incense smolders from burnished pots placed haphazardlyacross the floor, and finger-shape smoke curls into the air. A crude altar in theback pays homage with pennies, wine, and feathers to Danbala, who's a ringer forSaint Patrick, Moses, or sometimes a green-bodied snake. The owner must loveDanbala, because there are sequined vodou flags and spirit bottles bearing hislikeness everywhere I look.

A small clutch of men draw stools up to the counter and begin their dailybarter between work and talk. One of them pops a tape into a beat-up boom box,and drums and chanting now blend with the lilt of their voices, their Creolerising and falling like another rhythm. Above them, a row of ceramic saints waitsfor new homes and new disciples to protect or torment. I pay for my candles. Theincense now fills the store with its green scent, and I linger by the doorway;it's hard to leave a place where you could get what you wish for.

Saint Pierre Botanica Shop and Spiritual Store, 405 W. Sunrise Blvd., FortLauderdale, 954-767-6251.

I came to South Florida expectingtropical. What I didn't expect was South Seas tropical. But much to my surprise,right here in the middle of the urban jungle that's Broward County, there's alittle Polynesian oasis called Mai-Kai. Just a few feet away from the maniacs onFederal Highway, I stepped into another world, and it's the real thing.

That palm-thatch roof I saw from Federal is made from real South Florida palms.And by real South Floridians. Manager Kern Mattei told me that local SeminoleIndians are brought in to replace it when it wears out. Inside I found acavernous A-frame main room with a stage where real Polynesian dancers anddrummers perform nightly. Branching off that main room are seven dining rooms,each named after a different Pacific island, lots of genuine bamboo railings andmonkey pot wood tables with varnish about an inch thick.

But the real kicker is that each room is decorated with items from its namesakeisland. The primitive tools and eerie ceremonial masks on the walls of the NewGuinea room, for example, really are from New Guinea. It seems the originalMai-Kai owner was something of a traveler, and in the '40s and '50s heaccumulated the massive collection on display throughout the restaurant and barwith many items dating back to the turn of the 19th Century. I spot a preservedblowfish hanging in one room, and everywhere there are beautiful hand-madefishing traps dangling from the ceiling, many outfitted with soft lights thattransform them into exotic lanterns.

The place has something like three dozen original tiki masks, from the tiny tothe titanic, both inside the restaurant-bar and outside in the gardens (butmostly inside -- the South Florida climate tends to take its toll). In one littlegrotto area just off the trail that winds through the gardens, there's the motherof all tikis, a scarred wooden monster from the '40s that's maybe 12 to 15 feettall. Mattei tells me the poor fellow once sported an enormous erection, untilprudish patrons complained and he was emasculated.

The gardens themselves are quite something. Countless ferns and palms, standsof willowy bamboo. Waterfalls and pools. Orchids bred especially for Mai-Kai byan employee. In one corner there's a strange little structure that turns out tobe an outside kitchen. But instead of ordinary grills, it houses huge chimneyovens modeled after the ones used for cooking and heating in ancient Mongolianhomes. They burn on Australian oak and are used for virtually all Mai-Kai'smeats, which are impaled on hooks and hung on metal rods inside the smokychimneys.

The whole complex was designed by a Japanese architect named George Nakashimaand built in 1956. He used a Thai theme for the ladies' room and the gift shop.For the men's room and the bar, he went nautical. The bar, in particular, ismeant to make you feel as if you're on a lower deck of a ship. (The wooden entrybridge from the parking lot to the front door was intentionally designed to becreaky, the better to provide sound effects for patrons inside the bar.) A niceplace to sip a mai tai and reflect on the unique design of the Mai-Kai.

Mattei admits that the authentic-looking Thai and nautical trappings arereplicas, but they've been so expertly aged I would never have guessed. Otherwisethe Polynesian paraphernalia that send me into sensory overload at every turn arereal. He also tells me that the market value of this dream collection ofartifacts has skyrocketed so high that probably no one this side of Bill Gatescould ever afford to re-create Mai-Kai.

I believe him.

Mai-Kai Restaurant and Lounge, 3599 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale,954-563-3272.

I thought it would be a cinch to get a good look at theDelray Wreck, though I had no idea what the hell it really was. Just heard itmight be cool to float over and see. So I got to the southern tip of Delray Beachand rented the requisite gear -- a mask, a snorkel, flippers, and a dive flag --for $10 at a little shop from some guy wearing sunglasses and red trunks. He toldme the wreck was about 70 yards out. No problem.

I put on the flippers and the mask and put the snorkel in my mouth with a senseof queasiness. (It had a salty taste to it, and I figured untold numbers ofpeople had clenched it in their teeth without it being washed). Then I startedswimming. I swam out 70 yards in the clear, wonderful green water, which wasalternately cool one second and warm the next. And I looked. I looked and I heardmyself breathe, SHHEEEW… SHOOOO. And I looked. And I swam. Nothing seemed tochange. The bottom was just sand, that's all. After an hour, nothing. I wasexhausted, and even the sparkling water had lost its charm. Dozens of people onsea kayaks and other little water vessels were frolicking nearby, but none ofthem seemed to be looking for the wreck. So I finally swam back to shore, dejected.

Back on sand I was about to call it quits when I remembered that there was ahistorical plaque dedicated to the wreck on A1A. Standing before it I read thatthe Delray Wreck was actually a British steamship called the Inchulva, and itsank in 1903 during a hurricane. Nine men died, while the other 29 made it toshore, where they were taken care of by the townsfolk. Now I was intrigued --hell, for all I knew, the Delray Wreck might have been a sunken fishing boat from1978, not a genuine piece of history. And I also read, etched in steel, that thewreck was 150 yards off the coast, not 70. Suppressing my desire to bitch-slapthe bastard in the red trunks, I walked back to the beach, put on the goofyflippers, grabbed the dive flag, and started a grueling trip back out to thewreck.

By this time a couple of scuba divers were out in the water, and I figured theymust be diving the wreck. So I set my sights on their dive flag. Roughly 30 yardsfrom it, I saw beneath me a dark mass. It was damn spooky, and for a moment I hadto fight the fear that this thing might be a man-eating sea creature. But I knewit was no sea creature; it had to be the Inchulva. And it was. There, roughly 15feet below the surface, were a few coral and seaweed-covered pieces of thefateful old ship. And darting about the wreckage were the most beautiful fish I'dever seen. (Though I'm an avid adventurer, this was only the second time in mylife I'd ever gone snorkeling.) There were striking yellow and blue fish, rangingin size from a couple feet long to the size of a quarter. I won't pretend to knowthe names, nor will I go to the trouble of looking them up. Who cares? It'senough to say they were mysterious, beautiful, and worth that hour of futilityand then some to see. But that wreckage was also daunting in a way and strangelyhumbling.

I didn't stay there long, because there were bigger pieces of the Inchulva tobe seen, including a 110-by-60-foot chunk of hull and a couple of the ship'sboilers. So I swam (by then with a great deal of effort as my energy waned fromall the swimming) to the divers' flag, figuring they were immersed in anunderwater wonderland. But when I got there, I could see no wreckage. When theysurfaced, they told me they couldn't find the ship. Of all the damn things, I hada couple of lost scuba divers on my hands. But they decided we should all headwest, toward shore, which we did. And that's when I came upon one of the boilers,a round wheel-looking encasem*nt of iron maybe 20 feet in diameter. Again therewas a dizzying array of gorgeous fish, and I also saw a huge spotted eel swimmingabout in there. One glimpse of that monster had me quaking with fright-lacedexhilaration.

Soon I was envious of the scuba divers, who could stay down there and exploreto their hearts' content. I, on the other hand, had to hold my breath and divedown 15 feet to get a close look. Problem was, by the time I got down there, mylungs were already screaming at me to get the hell back up to the surface. And Idid a couple dozen times before I realized that I'd spent myself. With bothoutings I'd been swimming out there for a solid two hours; my legs were startingto cramp up, and the damn flippers were cutting into the sides of my feet. It wasquite a relief to get back on sand.

I'm going back to the Delray Wreck, though. I saw only a little sliver of theInchulva. And I loved it. The remnants of that nearly 100-year-old nightmareprovide more than just visual delights: It's a stark reminder that our bestefforts can easily be quashed by the tremendous, unpredictable power ofnature.

On April 8, 1948, Mort MarriedGreta. She was 21 years old, the daughter of Russian immigrants, and dressed insilk and satin for the big event. I thought the wedding went well -- nice peoplesurrounded them, from what I could see. The guests were all smiles and also woresome rather elegant costuming that stopped just short of extravagant.

My view came from their wedding album, 52 years later, which Greta ("LikeGarbo," she says) opened on a desk at Travel Etc., where the couple operates atravel agency and art gallery. Epstein's their surname, and joie de vivre, alongwith a love of travel and art, is their real game. That's what they say, but whatI say is I instantly got a second mom here in Greta.

She asked me if I'd been eating enough; I asked her what she looked like whenshe was young, eliciting the invitation to see her wedding album. I noticed, too,that Greta's a sucker for wayward artists. If you're an artist without a studio,you qualify as wayward and should check with Greta. I happen not to be an artist,but a member of that tribe stood before us sporting shoulder-length hair fallingonto a white T-shirt. Greta invited him to return and paint in the spacious backroom of her shop, where high ceilings, good light, and bonhomie create a goodworking atmosphere.

Her attentiveness was not just show. The Epsteins rent studio space completewith easels. For $135 a month, you get a place to bring brush to canvas, and ifyou're good Greta will display your work and try to sell it for you from thecrowded walls of her shop. Her front window, tucked between the Lord Nelson Puband the Stage Door Cafe, sits on the main drag in Himmarshee on Second Street,where some of the highest real-estate prices in Fort Lauderdale exist. Yet theprice for displaying four or five pieces on her wall, visible through plate glassfrom the street is only $50 a month. She'll take a commission as well, if you sell.

The Epsteins' painting-packed walls wrap themselves around the desks of theirtravel agents like heavy foliage, and the message may be that travel of theimagination is as important as actual travel to the seven continents. Gretadisplays oils, acrylics, watercolors, and pastels in a dizzying variety of stylesthat range from Irish rustic to impressionist to postmodern stark. Prices rangefrom $300 to $3000.

I don't have the money to buy, so I've taken to wandering into their space fora look, hoping sometimes to snag a good conversation. It's not like a museum,either, because none of the artists is dead, at least not yet. And many areregional: Vivien Parks has worked in four media; some of it is likeclichéd lighthouse scenes, but some of it merits a comparison to EdwardHopper. Parks serves as Greta's in-house teacher, offering occasional workshops.Artist Howard Newman's detailed background brings you vividly onto the streets ofNew York, where his scenes are set in Greenwich Village.

One of the most appealing paintings I saw arrived in the arms of some guy whoworks across the street from Travel Etc. at O'Reilly's, the Irish pub. He wasn'tthe artist, he was just a friend of the artist, who hadn't yet pulled into townfrom the old country. The artist is Rudock McIlwaine, whose "tranquil scenesdepict landscapes and images of the heart of Ireland with an unusual technique,"in Greta's opinion.

Maybe he's the Grandma Moses of Ireland. Go see for yourself. And if you wantto see the thing that art imitates -- they call it reality -- better still. Youcan start by buying an airplane ticket from Greta or Mort and traveling toIreland.

Travel Etc., 310 SW Second St., Fort Lauderdale, 954-522-6111.

Best of Broward-Palm Beach® 2016 - (2024)


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