One for the Road – Safari Lounge, Florida Keys

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Several years ago, my brother announced he was moving to South Florida; I was devastated to hear the news. I loved hanging out with him, and since he was the first person in my immediate family to move out of state, not having him around was going to be an adjustment. I got over it a few minutes later, though, when I realized I’d have a relative living in Florida with a free place to stay. I’ve since imposed on Andrew and his girlfriend, Linda, at their Fort Lauderdale-area home on more than a few occasions, and I recently joined them and their friends for a weekend in the Florida Keys – which is the setting for my first out-of-state BarHopper post.

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Our weekend stay in Islamorada could not have been more relaxing. Andrew and Linda, their friends Ryan and Jessica, and I were guests at the Coral Bay Resort, which offers comfortable cottages, lush greenery, and breathtaking views of the sunset.

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It would be hard to imagine a more peaceful atmosphere – strolling the beautiful grounds in the morning, lounging on the dock in the early evening, grilling at night.

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During the day, we spent most of our time at a nearby private beach, where pristine white sands, swaying palm trees, and clear blue water were the portrait of a tropical paradise.

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Thatched-roof huts with picnic tables gave us shelter when we needed a break from the Florida sun, but an inflatable floating cooler and beer coozies with built-in bottle openers ensured that we rarely left the warm shallows of the ocean.

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Between the resort and the beach, one could not want for anything down here. But since Andrew and company are all supporters of Boston BarHopper, they wanted to ensure I made it to a local bar for a Florida-based review. So all weekend, they kept promising to take me to a place they referred to as the “Dead Animal Bar,” on account of the multiple animal heads mounted on its walls. They insisted the experience would be well worth a detour from our luxurious tropical milieu.

And what an experience it was.

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The establishment in question is not actually called the Dead Animal Bar – its formal name is the Safari Lounge. I assumed that “Dead Animal Bar” was just an in-joke among my brother and his friends…until I got this complimentary t-shirt.

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Since the Safari Lounge embraces its nickname, let’s just go with that. Along with the deer and rhinoceros busts, the Dead Animal Bar’s dark hardwood flooring, high ceilings, and wooden walls give it the appearance of a hunting lodge, while the vintage cigarette machine, pool table, dartboards, and air hockey table are more reminiscent of a dive bar.

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dead animal collage

If you lack the requisite coordination for billiards, darts, or air hockey, but still have a competitive spirit, you can try your hand at the skill crane – which is located next to the zebra pelt. And on top of that, the bar overlooks the ocean. A more unusual combination of elements, I have yet to see.

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The draft beer selection is what you’d expect – Bud, Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, and Yuengling (always a novelty for those who can’t get it in the Boston area). The bar doesn’t serve food, which, considering the décor, is kind of ironic.

The Dead Animal Bar is a pretty casual place, to say the least. Before we headed over, I mentioned changing out of my t-shirt, shorts, and sandals into something more bar-appropriate; I was greeted with guffaws and raised eyebrows. If you’re wearing jeans down here, you’re overdressed.

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We arrived around 11:30 p.m. and found about 20 to 25 fellow patrons. The crowd was diverse, from 20-somethings on vacation to seniors enjoying their retirement. No one seemed out of place, and everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves (some a little too much).

While Andrew, Linda, Ryan, and Jessica commandeered a dartboard, I took a seat at the bar to absorb the environment. When I told the bartender, Tim, about my blog, he became wary; apparently he was afraid I would portray the Dead Animal Bar in a bad light (which is probably why I got the free shirt, which he said was “limited edition”). I assured him I was Mr. Positive when it comes to bars; and anyway, I was already loving this place.

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As I chatted with Tim, who insisted that the bar had been completely packed just an hour before I arrived, I heard a loud, heavy thunk – the unmistakable sound of an adult human body crashing onto a wooden floor. Sure enough, the solitary dude who’d been sitting across from me was no longer in sight, until a bunch of people converged and propped him back onto his stool. He took a few minutes to recover while Tim plied him with water.

After the guy left, Tim assured me that one of the other bartenders took him home. I was pretty impressed with that, but as Tim said “That’s just the way it works down here.” (That's not quite the way it works in Boston, where most likely a couple of bouncers would drag your drunken ass out the door and deposit you unceremoniously in the street.)

Employing his favorite euphemism, my brother helpfully commented to Tim that the guy might have been “over-served.” Tim demurred, stating instead that he had simply “over-ordered.” Touché.

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By the standard of someone collapsing from inebriation, the rest of the evening was colorful but relatively uneventful. Jessica and I crushed Andrew and Linda in a thrilling game of darts (the outcome of the follow-up match is irrelevant). A handful of 40-somethings worked the jukebox and started getting down to such varied numbers as “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” and “Sexy and I Know It.” A few retirees clearly over-ordered but managed to remain (mostly) vertical.

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As I polished off a can of Coors Light, I reflected on some of the cultural differences between Boston bars and bars in other states. Laws governing Massachusetts bars guard vociferously against intoxication. Happy hours are prohibited, of course. And since bars can be held liable for patrons getting out of hand, even the simple act of lifting your friend up in the air to pose for a picture might get you a tap on the shoulder from the staff.

In New Orleans, by contrast, you can walk the streets with an open container. Overdo it in the Florida Keys, and you might get a ride home from a sympathetic bartender. You wouldn’t find those things in Boston. Then again, when I leave a Boston bar, I don’t smell like an ashtray – which I consider a major plus.

Anyway, I’m not saying one approach is better than another; there are pros and cons and arguments to be had if you so desire. I just think the beauty of travel is appreciating the differences.

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Last Call

The bartender said it best: “If you’re down here, you gotta come to the Dead Animal Bar at least once.” Indeed, the Safari Lounge seems like the kind of place that’s frequented both by vacationers, making their first visit or their tenth, and locals (and if you’re fortunate enough to reside in Islamorada, cheers to you). It’s a must-visit bar that you’re sure to emerge from with a few good stories and some fond memories…assuming you don’t over-order.

Address: Mile Marker 73.5, Islamorada, Florida

Website: This place has a 70s-era cigarette machine; you really think they’ve got a website?

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