Water, water everywhere….which is to be expected along an island chain that stretches 125 miles.
Welcome to the Florida Keys, or as one local put it, the only Caribbean islands you can drive to.
The Florida Keys is all about scuba diving, SUP yoga, luscious seafood, fishing, jet packing… Yes, also lying around on the sand, and visiting museums. And did I mention the seafood?
For me, this all happened in July and it was hot, muggy, and sticky. Except for the underwater music festival, you can do any of these things in more comfy weather during fall, winter, early spring.
When I was a kid, flying into the Keys usually meant landing in Marathon, half way up the chain. Jet flights didn’t start arriving at what is now called Key West International Airport until 1968.
The Key West airport is still cute, quaint, devoid of jetways, and sporting, over its arrival doors, a huge replica of the giant concrete buoy that marks the southernmost point in the US.
So if you are going to visit the Keys, it makes sense to start at the bottom, a mere 90 miles from Cuba, and work your way north, eventually flying home from Miami.
Think of Key West as a circus of the good kind. There’s the joyful sundown craziness with music, jugglers, tightrope walkers, drummers, fresh coconuts filled with nature’s answer to Gatorade, sometimes a mermaid charmingly playing her guitar. And of course, the line of cell phone, tablet-sporting folk, arms raised, recording the orange ball of sun slowly, colorfully, slipping below the horizon.
Plenty to Do
There’s so very much to do in Key West, you truly need several days. The best way to cover as much as possible is to hop the Old Town Trolley. It makes 13 stops and you can get on and off at its regular pick up points.
What to see? There’s a map that lists 23 tours, museums, theaters. And it doesn’t begin to cover it all. Here are a few:
* Hemingway House – It’s not even on that map, yet it’s probably what visitors head for first. It’s a fascinating, thorough trip through Hemingway’s life in Key West, a chance to see his typewriter, the 53 descendants of his six-toed cats, and hear about a few Hemingway scandals. The swimming pool cost $20,000 in 1938 dollars. And, so the story goes, Hemingway flung down a penny on the half-built flagstone pool patio, bellowing at his wife, “Pauline, you’ve spent all but my last penny, so you might as well have that!” Whether the story is true or not, there is a penny embedded in cement at the north end of the pool to memorialize the alleged outburst.
* Mel Fisher Maritime Museum – This place contains actual Spanish galleon gold treasures found by treasure hunter Mel Fisher. It also gives visitors details of the hunt, the discoveries, the slave trade and piracy.
* Kayaking at night with Ibis Bay Paddle Sports– Leaving from behind The Stoned Crab cafe (affordable stone crab … yum), you paddle out to a salt pond in these seriously neat kayaks whose entire bottoms are see-through plastic. Light sticks show the shallow underwater world. We saw stingrays, conch shells, sea stars, a couple of Florida lobsters and, yes, even a baby shark! Our wonderfully enthusiastic guide, Riane, netted urchins, sea cucumbers and more for us to see up close.
* Listen to an explanation of coral reef restoration by Dr. Dave Vaughan of Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park beach. They have discovered that if you clip coral into little pieces and cement them to existing coral underwater, they start to grow back in two weeks rather than the two years it takes if they grow naturally.
“We have lost some 40% of the world’s corals so we can’t wait 300 years for them to grow back. We have to help it along by replanting,” Dr. Dave said.
You can snorkel out (gear is available for rent) and watch them drill and cement. And nearby is a natural reef in five feet of water TEEMING with tropical fish … thousands of tiny silversides swam in undulating curtains that folded on me as I finned into them. And there were larger fish too–snook, tarpon, chubs, snapper, parrotfish–all within a hundred yards of shore.
* Eat Your Fill– Yes, the Florida Keys have wonderful wonderful yummies. But perhaps my fav in Key West was the century old Blue Heaven in the historic Bahama Village neighborhood. It features outdoors tables among huge banyan trees and old Key West bungalows. We had a delicious breakfast … Keys shrimp on grits, lobster BLT, lobster Benedict and, yes, at 8 a.m., a slice of authentic Key lime pie. The place has a rocking night scene with bands and a full bar. It also comes with a colorful history. Through the decades Blue Heaven has hosted cock fighting, gambling and boxing matches refereed by Hemingway.
We motored up to Mile Marker 37 (that’s 37 miles up from Key West’s Mile Zero) to Bahia Honda State Park where we tried yoga on stand up paddle boards (SUP) with Sarah L. Sullivan of Serenity Eco Therapy. Yes, this was seriously cool. No, I don’t have the balance of a leaf in the wind. But everyone else managed to get to their feet.
Another point to remember … the Keys really don’t have many decent beaches because of the topography (hard coral rock). Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key is not only good, it’s ranked among the top ten beaches in the U.S.
Next up was the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. This place even has an ambulance for turtles. They pick up injured turtles, nurse them back to health and release them back into the ocean if possible. The visit includes a slide show explaining the turtles … among them, loggerheads that can chomp through a conch shell and leatherbacks that can be six feet long, weigh 2,000 pounds and eat 85 percent of their body weight in jellyfish a day.
You get to see the operating room and tanks with injured turtles, many of whom have weights glued to their shells because they developed air bubbles from injuries and can’t dive unaided for food. A tip: there were at least 40 people on our tour. Make reservations in advance!
One advantage of visiting the Keys in summer is the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival, now in its third decade. While at least 100 boats floated above us, those of us who had scuba certification got to dive among the reefs of Looe Key and watch the underwater mermaids pretend to play underwater instruments. All while a water-themed playlist pumped songs from The Little Mermaid, the Beatles (Yellow Submarine), the Gilligan’s Island theme and much more into the ocean. It was like swimming through a fog of sound and, meanwhile, the show was being picked up via radio broadcast in China, among other unlikely places.
“Everybody knows the upper keys, but we were somewhat forgotten. The Festival is a way to publicize the Lower Keys,” explained festival organizer Bill Becker who started this whole thing in 1985.
Okay, now we get to Robbie’s on Islamorada, a fun fest of the typical Keys kind.
Robbie’s is a little tourist village with the expected trinket and T-shirt stands, an outdoor cafe by the water and a sideshow of local wildlife. There are pelicans sitting picturesquely on dock poles, foot-long tarpon swarming in nearby shallow water and ducks that are simply begging to be photographed.
Best of all is Catch Your Cook at the Hungry Tarpon Restaurant. You go out on a four-hour fishing tour that is squarely aimed at visitors who are not necessarily diehard fishermen, but want a show. You stand at the rail with a light test line and two hooks holding fresh bait. The idea is to troll across the bottom, waiting for the line to bob, then reel it up fast, hoping there’s a delicious snapper at the other end.
Back at the dock, a clever marking system on each fish keeps everyone’s catch identified. A couple of crewmen then toss snapper, grunts and whatnot into each person’s bucket.
Then it’s time to filet the fish (better them than you) and you take a bag of filets to the cafe where they’re cooked and served with fries and slaw. Our snapper was absolutely mouth watering … tender, flaky, moist, flavorful. OMG. To be honest, no other fish, even in top-end restaurants during our trip, approached the quality of what we ate sitting around a picnic table that day.
But one place came close … Chef Michael’s in Islamorada. There, I had unquestionably the best lobster of the trip. It was prepared as tempura, with a crispy batter and meat inside so tender, it virtually melted on my tongue. There was also fish ceviche served in a coconut that, itself, was the milky way fresh coconut should taste but so rarely does. The ceviche was crammed with shrimp, lobster, lime and orange juice, coconut milk, onion, cilantro plus jalapenos to give it a kick.
Then came the hogfish, an ugly creature if there ever was one, sitting on a plate with its dorsal fin erect and an upper jaw of toothpick teeth hanging in the air. I think there was actual fish flesh in there somewhere, but I couldn’t get past the teeth, which made for a great photo opportunity. However, those who ate it, loved it.
Also in Islamorada was Tiki Jet. This is a James Bond jetpack straight from “Thunderball,” but powered with water instead of a gas engine. It comes in two flavors, a vest-like contraption with a thick hose tail through which water streams or boots that look like a steroidal version of something you would ski in.
The vest is easier for a beginner to master. Either way, you wind up flying as much as 30 feet off the water, depending on how agile (and brave) you are. The $199 price tag gets you 45 minutes in the air and a private lesson with Justin Parrish, who modernized the gear. It is a total, if somewhat water-up-the-nose, adrenaline rush.
Finally, there was John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and a glass bottom boat ride. It is a good way for someone who doesn’t dive to see the reef. The guides are a treasure trove of information.
We wound up our trip at Sundowners, a cafe on Key Largo. Great views, great fishy appetizers. And do NOT miss the mango coconut mojito. – Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor
If You Go
The best time to visit the Florida Keys is late fall through late spring, when the air is cooler and drier. There is still plenty to do in summer, though, especially the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival in July with music piped in underwater. There no longer seems to be an off season in Florida.
A word about mosquitoes. Fresh tropical breezes and a vigorous anti mosquito program kept most mosquitoes at bay during my trip. The Florida Department of Health website updates daily and when I visited in mid-July, they had not ever had a case of Zika in Monroe County, which includes the southern edge of mainland Florida and the Keys.
Among the interesting places to stay are those of Historic Key West Inns. These are boutique hotels created from original local homes. They are cozy, with just a few dozen rooms, modernized and located in Key West’s Old Town near restaurants and Duval Street.
The Florida Keys – http://www.fla-keys.com/
Historic Key West Inns – http://www.historickeywestinns.com/
The Stoned Crab – http://www.stonedcrabkeywest.com/#the-stoned-crab
Ibis Bay Paddle Sports – http://www.keywestpaddle.com/
Blue Heaven – http://www.blueheavenkw.com/
Hemingway House – http://www.hemingwayhome.com/
Coral restoration with Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory – https://mote.org/locations/details/tropical-research-laboratory
Serenity Eco Therapy – http://www.serenityecoguides.com/
Turtle Hospital – http://www.turtlehospital.org/
Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival – http://www.lowerkeyschamber.com/festival.php
Robbie’s Marina (Hook & Cook) – http://www.robbies.com/
Hungry Tarpon Restaurant – http://www.hungrytarpon.com/
Check out Yvette’s Florida Keys photo diary – https://goo.gl/photos/74ioTu1WWkVk5Pt27