Blame it on Jimmy Buffett. Or maybe Ernest Hemingway. But my travel bucket list has long had the Florida Keys on it, not exactly surprising for a snow-blinded soul living in the frozen north, where spring means snow squalls that bury hope along with foolhardy crocuses.
Last April, the irresistible pull of Margaritaville and the yearning to remember what wearing shorts felt like finally grabbed me. Corralling three fellow escapees from Vermont misery, we headed south with a recreation bent: kayak in the ocean, bike and explore the beaches, snorkel and catch a few rays. Not for us the tawdry honky-tonk of Key West, the tourist traps and tropes. Give us the Keys’ wild side!
Which, we discovered, doesn’t really exist — revealing among other things, the inherent limitations in online research at a 1,400 mile remove.
None of this was presaged as our plane slid through fluffy clouds in late afternoon to deposit us in Miami’s 78 degree sunshine. Upgraded to a spacious sedan at the car rental counter, the good omens seemed to be lining up. Windows open, we headed off into the sunset, noses attuned to that first hint of balmy ocean breeze. That hit on Key Largo, as did hunger.
The smartphone brigade went to work. Way off the beaten path, (Thank you, Yelp!) we found Shipwreck’s Bar & Grill: It was dockside, funky, cheap, and delicious. “Keyed up” and ready for a week of outdoor fun, we headed to our condo. What could go wrong?
The Keys proved to be basically a narrow 110-mile strip mall of interconnected coral islands whose unofficial motto appears to be “Cheaper than Key West!” Think Maine Route 1 – albeit with ocean on both sides, in stunning shades of blue. This geographic verity and a jumbled overbuilt landscape joined Mother Nature to blow our plans away like paper napkins in a brisk sea breeze.
The guide books said kayak rentals are everywhere, but we only found one good rental operation (in Big Pine Key, managed by a Vermont expat). Big waves and winds foiled a couple of paddles, and the uninhabited Keys that looked so alluring on Google maps proved to be featureless swaths of mangrove shorelines. Those imagined shimmering curves of sand beaches, like in the Bahamian Cays? Turns out a Cay is not a Key: There’s less sand in the Keys than in your average New England town garage stockpile.
As for biking, our choice turned out to be either hot and windy Route 1 in anxiety-inducing tourist traffic or dense forests of condo and housing developments with bland roads sprouting for sale signs.
In sum, Plan A was a near total bust. Still, a week in shorts? We could deal with it. We shifted gears to find pleasure in other things tropical and temporal. We piled into the car to search out great eateries, like Marathon’s bright-orange Wooden Spoon Diner for breakfast, where the wall clock has no numbers, just the words “Who Cares!” Outside Key West we lucked into a great Asian-Caribbean seafood fusion joint called Kaya Island Eats – and a coconut mojito that rocked. In Key West, Mo’s spiced up the night with a taste of Caribbean and Creole flavors. Everywhere we played “corn hole,” the ubiquitous Keys bean bag-throwing game found at bars. Aerobic? No, but it was fun.
Exercise? Back to the basics: walking. At the Crane Point Museum and Nature Center, 63-acres of trails filled in some botanical blanks on Keys flora and birdlife. We strolled miles around Key West’s picturesque bustling streets (surprising ourselves by enjoying tourist traps like Hemingway’s house). We splurged on the $300 seaplane flight to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, walking around this mind-boggling six-sided 1846 brick monument to military misappropriation and misjudgment, and snorkeling (finally!) the sand shoreline.
It was a week that reminded us of an essential truth of traveling: If you just go with the flow, the flow can reward you. And the 4 feet of snow in my yard had almost vanished in the eight days I was gone.Andrew Nemethy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.