The Florida Keys
The more we travel through the United States the more we realize what an enormous and diverse country we are seeing. Like New Orleans and San Antonio, The Florida Keys felt like they were in another part of the world. These islands off the tip of Florida have a unique, sun drenched and rum soaked Caribbean culture which we found easy to enjoy and difficult to leave. It’s not surprising that at one point the Keys tried to secede from the union, calling themselves the Conch Republic. We are sure that if they had tried to leave on our visit we probably would have helped them.
We spent the majority of our visit on Key West, most notable for water the color of ice blue spearmint suckers, drunken Ernest Hemmingway look-alikes (he had a mansion in Key West) and wild chickens pecking and clucking throughout the streets. It was a town where feral cat colonies looked well fed and happy while geckoes littered the pavement and trees put forth unripe, green coconuts.
As part of our trip, we purchased a packaged tour on a catamaran where we worked on our tans, kayaked through mangrove islands and snorkeled on the coral reef. The snorkeling impressed us most as it was the first time we had been underwater with masks. We hadn’t expected the ocean to look so much like an aquarium and were amazed at the bright colors of the fish. We were also thrilled when Barracuda came close to investigate us and a five-foot fish swam next to Jeff.
During our visit we saw our share of famous Key West sunsets. On an evening catamaran tour we passed full-masted schooners and saw the sun drop slowly behind purple cumulus clouds. The following evening we went to Key West’s famous sunset pier. It was full of street performers, vendors and artists working the crowds. We were lucky enough to catch a family of street performers who put on a comic show that included a white poodle named Top Hat. We learned that there’s nothing like a tiny, friendly dog to encourage an audience to gather and he walked the pier before the show to lead people close to the stage. Once the show began he participated fully, even conducting a dramatic doggie death scene as his finale.
We also enjoyed some of Key West meals, sampling conch fritters, red conch chowder and eating at Dennis Pharmacy Cafeteria – one of the places that inspired Jimmy Buffett’s Cheeseburger in Paradise. One night we ate some of the best Cuban Food we’d had. This wasn’t too surprising as Key West is only 90 miles from Cuba – the closest point in the U.S.
At the beginning and end of our visit we managed to see other parts of the Keys as well. On Key Largo we saw the boat Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn sailed on in The African Queen. It is preserved and sitting in a dock at a Holiday Inn next to it is the ship from On Golden Pond and a small cruise vessel. We also had the most traditional “Island Bar” experience of our entire trip at a dockside tiki bar next to a marina. Fish swam up to us as we ate while cats roamed under our chairs.
We enjoyed our visit to the Florida Keys, at one point nearly answering job ads at a dolphin research center so we could stay there several weeks. But the threat of mid-summer hurricanes and our eagerness to continue traveling kept us from settling in. We left the Keys for “the real-world” after just a week, determined to put it on the top of our list for a future vacation. We eagerly look forward to our next chance to snorkel, sip rumrunners and soak up the Caribbean sun.