John Van Duyne Jr., now 59, lived in Key West, Fla., for a few years after college, working for a landscaper, serving as a mate on a charter boat and, he recalls fondly, "being a bum and partying pretty good" with then-girlfriend Ellen, known as Scottie, who has been his wife for the last 31 years.
That was a long time ago. But the place made such an impression that Van Duyne has returned many times to vacation. And then there's his backyard . . .
If you didn't know it was in sleepy old Ventnor Heights, you'd swear it was Key West or maybe "Margaritaville," channeling Jimmy Buffett's 1977 hit song about limey tequila cocktails and the "Conch Republic" of Florida.
Set back from the street, Van Duyne's garden is a swirl of tropical colors and features. It's got the hammock, the plants and water features, the mounted surfboard and striped-bass weather vane.
"This is the way backyards are in the Keys," says Van Duyne (pronounced dine). "You can't see back there, so you go in the house, out the back door, and you go, 'Holy mackerel!' "
Or maybe you go:
Nibblin' on sponge cake,
watchin' the sun bake . . .
Van Duyne winces slightly at the suggestion. Probably because the "Margaritaville" thing has been so overdone, and not just by fans. Buffett himself has an empire of Margaritaville stores, restaurants, and food products, dubbed "corporitaville" by John Mihelich, a popular-culture scholar at the University of Idaho.
Still, how can you not love that carefree Key West feeling?
At the moment, Van Duyne could use a little of that. He's sitting at the dining room table, taking business calls on his cell ("thanks, buddy"), looking all baked and freckled with bleached-out chest hair the way Shore men get, dressed in sleeveless T, baseball cap, shorts, sneakers.
Call ends; he's up and out the back door. Time for a tour of the garden, which, right off the bat, you see is no typical beach garden. What, no pine trees?
There's a reason horticultural choices aren't more daring in this part of the world; rough wind and salty air can be punishing. But Van Duyne, a second-generation builder of luxury homes, wanted to have fun with his green space.
So he consulted his friend Bill Darpino of Victory Farms Landscaping and Lawn Maintenance in Egg Harbor City, who does the landscaping for the two or three homes Van Duyne builds in Longport, Margate, and Ventnor each year.
Together, over time, the two have transformed a once-unremarkable yard into what Van Duyne's sister Cathy calls "our little Van Duynesty."
It features two ponds and a waterfall, a heated saltwater "dunkin' pool," a trove of tropical plants and party lights, a weathered hammock from Key West, stone walls and Montauk blue-slate paths, and generous space for grilling and lounging.
There's an outdoor sound system, of course.
Says Darpino: "You can lay in the hammock, listen to music, or hop in the pool. You can sit over there and listen to the waterfall. . . . You enter into a different world."
"Rescued" from construction sites are daffodils, tulips, forsythia, and evergreens. He has planted tropical gardenias, dahlias, and cannas, and red and pink hardy hibiscus, which can sport 50 boom-boom blooms at a time.
In summer, his 50 orchids hang, jungle-style, from a tree by the pool, amid the beds of agastache, bee balm, hydrangea, lilies, camellias, peonies, and foxgloves. Plus annuals and a few bare spots - "dog territory," reserved for Tuna, Van Duyne's 11-year-old golden retriever.
The place is popping with color, with a relaxed, happy feel.
Speaking of relaxed, Van Duyne - a self-described "high-stress, high-energy guy" - enjoys "reading" in his hammock following an afternoon at the beach, which is three blocks away.
"Two pages and I'm out," he confesses.
Or he'll wade into the pool, which was never about exercise. "It's not a typical guy pool. I'm not interested in swimming laps," he says, but it's a great backdrop for entertaining, which Van Duyne and his wife do a lot.
They flip on the night lights, trip the satellite radio ("Margaritaville" comes on occasionally), and cart out the burgers and just-caught sea bass or bluefish, the Jersey corn and tomatoes.
"Pretty tough to beat," says Van Duyne, who grows tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and herbs on the other side of the house.
Except for four years at Marietta College in Ohio and that seminal postgraduate interlude in Florida, Van Duyne has lived in Ventnor Heights, which is part of Ventnor City, his whole life - on the same block, no less.
He and his three siblings grew up at 113 N. Dudley Ave. In 1980, Van Duyne and Scottie, parents of three now-grown daughters, bought his grandparents' house next door (117). This was where Van Duyne's father grew up.
Sister Sue and her husband live at 113 now. Brother Tom and his wife are at 111. Cathy, the outlier, lives in Margate but works at Van Duyne's construction company. The office is a 40-foot houseboat - where else? - just down the street.
"We're kind of the anchor of the block," says Van Duyne, using an apt marine metaphor. (Since the 1950s, the Van Duyne family has built hundreds of unsinkable fiberglass lifeguard boats for beach patrols from Cape May to Long Beach Island. Tom is the boatbuilder now.)
Set on two lots, Van Duyne's home was built by his grandfather in 1920. It's a Sears, Roebuck & Co. Craftsman-style bungalow called "Vallonia," one of more than 70,000 mail-order house kits the giant retailer sold from 1908 to 1940.
It hasn't changed much. Van Duyne covered the siding with cedar shake and added a small greenhouse off the kitchen for his orchids, which he's eager to show off, along with his Ventnor Pier painting, a blown-up postcard of the old, still-familiar Atlantic City skyline, and his Key West pictures.
Finally, in the driveway, comes the last stop on the tour: Van Duyne's Porsche 911, six years old, 16,000 miles, with the license-plate frame that says it all - Key West on top, Margaritaville below.
Just think. It's a straight shot, 1,412.38 miles, between here and the real - or is it imagined? - deal.
Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/ philly/blogs/gardeningEndText