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Published: Sunday, 2/20/2005

Pet-friendly place is a welcome oasis for Florida traveler

KEY WEST, Fla. Ordinarily, lunch with Digby is a fast-food stop for chicken nuggets, or in the kitchen at Posey Lake. But here in America s most southern point, where we have reveled in 80 degree temperatures daily, we dined with a hundred or so other people, some chickens, and a cat at a public restaurant.

It was great fun taking Digby to lunch for Valentine s Day at the Blue Heaven restaurant, where all pets are welcome guests and cats and chickens roam freely through the outdoor area reserved for people and their pets. Having just had a grooming appointment that morning, Digby was especially handsome. He lapped up attention from other customers, but not from the cat that took an immediate dislike to the big black-and-white dog.

The roosters and hens that peck in the dirt when customers aren t throwing them bread crumbs are a part of the ambience. They roam freely at the restaurant and all over the city and seem to crow loudest when live music is playing.

Digby considers cats his friends. Back home he lives peacefully with Sullivan and Geranium, but on this special lunch date the old dog suffered the shock of his life when he got too close to a Blue Heaven cat that appeared to be asleep until it noticed the new guest. No blood, just a whimper.

The pet-friendly restaurant and other experiences indicate Florida rolls out the red carpet for dogs.

But bedding down in quality pet-friendly lodging in Florida is another issue. Travelers who make previous arrangements through the Internet or a travel agent are wise; they save the frustration and driving that I had. I began the search, stopping at several motels in West Palm Beach. A few pet-friendly places only accepted dogs that weigh 30 pounds or less.

On Highway A1A, two motels advertised pet rooms on the marquees. By 5 p.m. when I stopped, the five rooms in one of them and the eight rooms in another were already taken. It was onward and forward and a chance stop at a national chain motel where the desk clerk made five calls to find me a place, to no avail. She took pity on us, saying she could lose her job if her kindness was learned by the management, and gave us a room at the back of a building. We were not caught.

The next day, after making several calls, a reservation was made at the Miami River Inn, which is somewhere downtown on the west bank of the Miami River. After driving around a half-hour to find the place I hailed a cab and gave him $10 to follow him to the address. He couldn t find the inn either, but after another half-hour and two calls for more specific directions, we did find the 1906 rooming house, encircled by a high black wrought iron fence and promoted as fresh squeezed paradise. I was assigned to the room off the front porch. It reminded me of mother s rooming house in Adrian charming. The nightstand was a treadle sewing machine and the 12-inch TV didn t have a remote. But as they say, when you are handed a lemon, make lemonade. That evening I found my way to Tobacco Road, said to be Miami s first bar, another charmer, for a great hamburger and a beer.

I can t speak for the 8 a.m. continental breakfast at the inn because we were out of there by 7. I unlocked the huge iron gate, found the Florida turnpike, then Route 1 heading south, the only road to the Florida Keys. The intention was not to drive all the way to Key West but to stay in Marathon or Islamarado, but after 10 stops and many phone calls to motels, it was a choice of either lying about the dog or to keep going. Those that I checked out from a list of pet-friendly places, were not suitable for the $150 asked. Charming and quaint can only go so far.

The employee at a roadside visitors center offered two rooms in Key West, one for $229 and another for $250 plus 11 per cent tax, which were declined because I just knew the luck of the Irish would come through. It did.

Twelve miles from Key West I took a chance and drove into the Sugar Loaf Lodge, a waterfront motel and restaurant complex at Sugarloaf Key. Owner Miriam Good said, We love pets.

Thus a new friendship was sealed during a four-day stay in a lovely room 40 feet from the water, with pina coladas at the Tiki Bar and fresh fish every night in the restaurant.

Those of us who are foolish enough to travel with our dogs especially those over 30 pounds must pack perseverence along with the dog food.



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