Off the Beaten Track

Counting grad school, I’ve worked in the same small academic field of study for nearly three decades.  Because I’ve skipped it for the last few years, the conference I attended in Jacksonville, Florida last week was a homecoming of sorts.  It was also a wonderful opportunity to catch up with colleagues I’ve grown close to over the years.

These friendships are special. Aside from our common interest in family resource management (the broad term for our field of study), we have similar jobs. We also share many of the same interests, challenges, and frustrations–and of course, know a lot of the same people. In other words, we have a lot to talk about.

Early in my career, attending one of our conferences meant hooking up with eight to ten or more of my closest friends for dinner. Given the challenges of talking to everyone in a group so large, poor service with that many people, and automatic twenty percent gratuities on tables of that size, over the years the desired number of dinner companions has dwindled.  Now I prefer slipping off with maybe three friends for a more intimate gathering including some one-on-one time.

Prior to last week’s conference, I contacted a couple of close friends to schedule time for us to get together. I’ve learned the hard way that failing to plan ahead means missing out on connecting with the people I most look forward to seeing at these events.  All my free time was booked before I even left Athens.

Wednesday night I’d arranged to have dinner with Ms. J, a woman I’ve known for my entire career. We’ve worked together on countless projects and co-chaired a national working group during the eighteen months I worked in DC.  She’s married with two dogs and no children. She and her husband go on exotic weeks-long vacations every summer to international locations well off the beaten path.

Ms. J wanted to eat at Clark’s Fish Camp.  With the exception of oysters, I love every kind of seafood I’ve ever had and was happy to hit a fish place for dinner. As I had my car and the Garmin GPS, that Clark’s was about twenty miles south of our hotel was not a problem.

On the way down, Ms. J said she’d read about Clark’s Fish Camp in a magazine.  My intrigue increased when instead of Southern Living, Gourmet, or Bon Appetit, she identified the publication as National Geographic.  I knew then we were in for something out of the ordinary.

Like her summer vacation destinations, Clark’s Fish Camp is well off the beaten path. Given the darkness and the remote location, were it not for the GPS I doubt we could have found it.  We pulled into a parking lot that revealed nothing about the sprawling wooden structure we were about to enter.

The host guided us past a tank containing Lily, a five-foot long alligator, to a table at the very back of the restaurant. The central bar area is decorated with lush fake greenery, deer antler chandeliers, and a truly amazing assortment of stuffed animals. Throughout the restaurant, stuffed animals of every stripe are arranged in little scenes across the ceiling and in every available nook and cranny.

I’m not talking about FAO Schwartz teddy bears.  Clark’s Fish Camp is home to the largest taxidermy collection in North America. It’s like walking through a jungle, with Christmas lights.

The menu is equally overwhelming. It features every imaginable permutation of standards like shrimp, scallops, clams, oysters and a dozen varieties of fish.  You can also order gator, ostrich, rabbit, quail, eel, buffalo, antelope or snake.

Our server was prompt, efficient, and very helpful. I ordered an old-fashioned shrimp cocktail and a ginormous fried seafood platter. Given my diet, broiled would have been better but wasn’t an option.

The shrimp cocktail was excellent. The shrimp were fresh, plump, and still slightly warm in the middle. The cocktail sauce was tangy with just the right amount of horseradish.  The fried seafood platter was just okay, with clams that were way overcooked and impossible to eat.

Even so, I’d go back again.  Given the slide show on their website (which you really must check out), next time I’d like to go when it’s still light outside. I had no idea our table overlooked water.  If you’re ever in Jacksonville, I highly recommend Clark’s Fish Camp for ambiance, food, and a setting unlike any I see from…

My Glass House