The Florida Keys
Florida Keys- January- 2007
Mon. Jan. 8,2007-Ft. Myers,Fl.
We arose at 6:30 A.M. It was 64 degrees and clear out. We finished packing,loaded up le voiture and set out for the Keys. A shaving nick,on my chin, bled like a stuck pig for the first few hours. We followed Rte.#75 South, past Naples and Marco Island and made the turn onto “Alligator Alley.” The 121 mile stretch of highway cuts a swath right across Florida, through the thickest part of the Everglades. In years past, when the road had been a rural two lane affair, actual alligators had crawled onto the road and been run down, giving the route its nickname. Now the entire length is lined with sturdy chain link fence, to keep the deer, cougars and other denizens of the swamps inside their grassy abode.
The bird life here is abundant. You don’t really get the sense of it until you stop at a rest area. Then, the chattering cacophony of shrill cheeps is attention getting. The air was warming and the palms swaying. The area has the aura of the tropics. The rolling sea, of grassland around us, stretched out for thousands of square miles, dotted here and there with small clumps of Cypress and a few palms. Man made canals criss-cross the area. They are occasionally used by air boaters and fishermen.
As we emerged from the eastern end of the glades, we could see in the distance the large scale highways running North to South. We picked up Rte. # 821 and headed South, skirting the western edge of the enormous population tangle of Miami/Ft. Lauderdale. Six lanes of traffic, bordered by rows and rows of stucco-sided and red, clay-tiled and roofed housing bespoke of an ever expanding Metro Miami. Rte. #821 ends at Florida City, where we stopped for gas and coffee.($2.29 per gal-reg.) The sprawl was lessened here as the road narrowed onto two lane Rte. #1, which would eventually take us the 150 miles into Key West. We stopped though in Key Largo. It was the 200 mile marker, in our trip, and had taken us a short 3 & 1/2 hours. We pulled into the Holiday Inn,hoping for an early check in. Luck wasn’t with us today. We walked the grounds of the lovely complex, admiring the pool area and Tiki bar. The hotel sits next to a canal where pleasure boats, fishing rigs and all manner of nautical craft lie moored. Curiously, the aging, wooden hulk of the “African Queen” lay moored here on display. Humphrey Bogart had filmed “Key Largo” in the area and the craft had been brought here as a memento. The steam boiler is on display in the hotel lobby. The aging and deteriorating wreck sits dockside, attracting the curious.
We noticed the two decked “Key Largo Princess” sitting at anchor. She is a glass-bottomed tour boat that ferries the interested seven miles out to the reef of John Swannekamp Underwater State Park. It looked promising. For $25 each, we bought tickets and waited for the 1:00 P.M. , 2-hour tour. It was sunny, hot and 85 degrees out. It felt like the tropics. Finally, we boarded her and sought the cool shade of the upper deck. My annoying shaving nick kept being annoying.
The Princess motored through the canals of the area. Large, luxury vacation homes sit along the many canals in a Venice like setting. One good hurricane, or tidal surge, will take them all out. The sea was a brilliant turquoise in the afternoon sun. A few small clouds scudded along the horizon. A small array of fishing and diving craft skittered across the the glistening aquamarine surface.
The rhythmic rocking, of the boat, was mesmerizing in the heat of the afternoon sun. It took about forty five minutes to reach the coral reef, some seven miles off shore. The area had been declared a Florida State Park, in efforts to preserve the fragile reef ecosystem. No fishing was allowed. The Reef Park area been named after John Pennekamp, an environmental writer who had helped champion the cause of saving the reef. On the charts, the area is called “Molasses Reef” for a load of the same reportedly dumped here during the smuggling days of prohibition.
We all descended below decks and stood around the glass plates of the hull. Some 30 feet long and a dozen feet wide, the glass bottom was a murky and pale blue panoply of the marine system below us. The skipper narrated what we were seeing. The interesting swirl of delicate brain coral, the spiny exoskeleton of a dozen other varieties and the swaying underwater vegetation, were all peopled with an eye catching variety of colorful marine life. Striped sergeant fish, and a rainbow of other warm water fish swam unconcerned beneath us. The glass has a magnifying effect. What lay 30 feet beneath us, seemed only a few feet away. Turtles, barracuda, and a memory straining array of other fish, swam in and out of the small indentations of the reef and the leafy algae and water ferns. We watched spell bound as the boat swung back and forth. The motion could unsettle the stomach of the afflicted. One passenger made it topside to the rail just in time.
We saw the destruction, of some corral, from even the mere touch of foreign substances. Bleaching and other environmental afflictions threaten the delicate ecosystem. Soon enough, we ended our tour and motored he seven miles back to Key Largo. Small dive boats, with their “diver in the water” flags lay at anchor all around us. The Park is an attraction worth seeing. Two hours is more than enough time to view the reef park.
The hotel still had not the room ready. Rather than be annoyed, we retreated to the pool-side Tiki bar and enjoyed some vodka tonics. A platter of coconut shrimp and a huge pile of fried calamari were delicious. Better start keeping track of calories.A sun shower chased some swimmers away, as we sat and enjoyed the late afternoon.
We walked nearby, to a drug store, and bought a pile of remedies for the annoying razor cut. It reminded me of a visit to Paris when we had needed to do the same. The best I could manage, in my newly acquired French, was to ask the Pharmacist for a “stop the blood stick.” Eventually he got my drift and sold me a styptic pencil. Try saying that in a few languages. English is always easier. In any case, we finally got into our room ($262 night) and managed to stauch the nick. We sat on our balcony, over looking the canal, and enjoyed a glass of cabernet while the sun set and the various fishing boats moorred and washed down for the evening.There is always something interesting going on in a Marina. We read for a time (Fist of God-F.Forsyth) and then decided to go for an early evening walk.
A noisy rock group was playing loud music , at the nearby Coconut Grille, as we walked allong the many docks in the area. Huge pleasure boats like the “Whose your Daddy?,” Dream Diver” and “Lucky Chance” rode at anchor next to fishing boats of all sizes. A small, multi-story “boaters condo” was ablaze wiith light and activity. A few small pubs, peopled with ships crews, drinking beer and telling endles sea tales fleshed out the nautical population. You could be docked almost any place and feel the same.
Continuing walking, we came upon a rather large municipal, complex called the “Jacobs Sports Complex.” Fenced in entirely, lies a huge swimming pool, soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts and various other sporting venues. Local children were playing on the various fields reminding us that even the vacation paradise of the Keys held ‘real people” living out their daily lives. Tiring from the day, we retreated to our room, read for a time and then surrendered to the Sandman.
Tues. Jan. 9,2007- Key Largo, Florida
We arose at 7:00 A.M. It was cloudy and 64 degrees out, with a light rain. We had coffee in the room as we watched the TV news. Prepping for the day, we packed our gear and checked out off the hotel. Traffic was heavy, flowing Southward. At Long Key, we espied the ‘Little Italy” Restaurant and stopped in for breakfast. The Crab Omelets were wonderful. Thus fortified, we set out for Key West. Duck Key, Boca Chica, Marathon, Big Pine Key, they passed by pleasantly. In the larger keys hotels and small resorts clustered along the highways. The Keys are in transition.Rural poverty, amidst the splendor, is still evident. Small fishing shacks, modest trailers and single story frame houses still sit amidst the many spendid vacation homes and high priced resorts. Like much of Florida, the natives are gradually being priced out of the area. In the smaller keys, you could look to the right and see the Gulf of Mexico, then look too the left and see the Atlantic Ocean.The thin, two-lane strip of Macadam followed the pathway of the old Flagler Overseas Railroad. An occasional vehiccular passing area was proceeded by a series of signs that read “have patience,” attesting to the frustrations of driving for several hours in a conga line of heavy traffic, unable to pass or speed up.
The bridges between keys are excellent vantage points to look out into the Gulf and enjoy the view. The ride down here is half the reason for making the trip. It took us 2 & 1/2 hours to navigate the 100 miles into Key West from Key Largo, and that was traffic on a good day. The first time we had mae this trip, it was 2:00 A.M. We had missed a Marathon Key air connection in Miami. An accident on the road had stalled vehicular traffic for hours.
Finally, U.S. #1 led us into Key West. A glut of hotels and commercial properties crowd the area around the small airport as you enter Key West. We followed Simonton St. , a few blocks across, too Angela St. and arrived at the small B & B “Duval Inn.” We parked in the sand and gravel lot and were fortunate in that the room was ready. We checked in and walked into the two story frame dwelling. The Hibiscus room, at $200 a night, was considered inexpensive for the crowded Duval St. area. It is pine panneled and comfortaable enough, with a tiny bathroom. A small pool and lounge area occupy the rear of the grounds.
We unpacked our gear and then set out for a stretch of the leg along crowded Duval St. . Duval runs from the cruise ship docks, along Mallory Square, some two miles to the hotel and resort at the Southern tip of Key West. It’s end is one block over from the diving buoy that features the lettering “Southernmost point in the USA” on it. It is a favorite picture spot for tourists. Walking down Duval street is like walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans, or through Times Square in New York City. Every day, at least two huge cruise ships dock near Mallory Square. From ten A.M. until the Mother ship calls them back at 4 P.M., thousands of eager, brightly clad tourists wander up and down Duval street, shopping, lunching or pub crawling. It gets pretty crowded by mid afternoon. Whitehead Street runs parallel to Duval, but has much less commercial activity. Hemmingway’s home and Truman’s White House sit on Whitehead.
We walked to Mallory Square, enjoying the oddity of the peopled throng. Several languages flowed over and around us. German and Spanish being the most prominent. At Mallory Square, we turned onto “Schooner Walk.” It is a deck board Marina walk that carries you by thousands of boats at anchor, several very nice Restaurants and many nautical tourist shops. We had walked nearly five miles and were tiring. We stopped at a Beach club, near the Southernmost point , and had a few club sodas to rehydrate. A score or so of sun bathers were taking in the rays on the small beach. It was sunny, breezy and a cool 73 degrees out.
Regenerated, we walked back along Duval St. again, seeing the familiar green emblem of Starbucks ahead. We stopped in for cookies and some of their delicious, amber nectar. The crowds of shoppers were thickening. The rising Euro had made shopping here a decided bargain for Europeans. Many walked along with bags and bags of purchases. It was mid afternoon and we were flagging, so we walked back to Angela Street and settled in for an afternoon nap. Yea Ozzie Nelson, patron of afternoon naps.
By 5 P.M., we were feeling refreshed. We set out along Duval St. for Mallory Square and the nightly ritual of watching the sun set. Restaurants were filling, with early diners, as we traversed Duval. It is only in the early morning hours that you see this street uncrowded. The cruise ships had left Port at 4 P.M., so at least some of the crowding had abated.
Mallory Square is a paved plaza about 100 yards wide by 50 yards deep. It sits on the western edge of Key West. A luxury hotel, some high rise condos, a few restaurants and the cruise ship docks frame it against the sea. The attraction here is simple enough. Each night , throngs of tourists gather to watch the Sun set into the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It sounds simple enough, yet an entire cottage industry has been built around it. Jugglers, fire eaters and vendors of all types vie for the crowds attentions. Performers, mimes, actors and many other adventurers compete for the applause and scattered tips from the crowd. We watched people breathe fire, play musical instruments and entertain the crowd in all manner of ways. It is a nightly circus that packs them in. Even a few whackos sought attention. One character, with a pirate sword and a antique gun, we gave a wiide berth. And then there is the real attraction. The golden orb of the sun sets lower and lower, until you can almost hear the hiss of heat as it settles into the cool water, far out in the gulf. A few tour boats, some under lateen sail, drifted out into the gulf to give better advantage for viewers.The crowd murmured appreciatively, sipping on wine, champagne and any thing else that they use to accompany their personal ritual. It really is a happening that occurs nightly, every day , unless rain or thickening clouds spoil the view.
The night was cooling and we were feeling the need for caloric replenishment. We walked back along Duval St. The restaurants were filling up quickly. We had made 7:30 P.M. dinner reservations at “Trattoria” on Duval, but hoped to be seated earlier. The Maitre d’ acomodated us, and we sat down in this comfortable and charming restaurant. A glass of Piscini Chianti relaxed us. Mary ordered the Penne Putanesqua and I , the Linguini Fra Diavolo. Both were of excellent quality. We much enjoyed the meal. The restaurant had filled, while we were dining. It was now SRO. We noted that all manner of dress are acceptable in Key West, even in the “better restaurants.”
After dinner, we walked along Duval Street or a bit. It had gotten warmer and muggier as the winds eased. The crowds still ambled along the brightly lit street, seeking dinner or drinks, or the more exotic entertainment that emerges later in Key West. It was time for these pilgrims to pack it in for the night. We walked to the B & B, and then sat for a time reading, on the front porch, enjoying the warm night air and a last glass of wine. It had been along and interesting day in Key West,
Wed. Jan. 10, 2007- Key West, Florida
We were up early. It was 62 degrees and chilly out. A steady 25 knot breeze had blown all night. We had coffee and bagels in the room while we watched the TV news. At 9:00 P.M., we set off along Whitehead for the Truman White House on Key West. It is a two-story, frame dwelling built in 1890. It had been the home of the submarine base commander in Key West before Truman. He visited the area ,on the advice of Navy Brass, and liked the climate. He visited many times during his seven year presidency. For $11 each, we joined a small narrated tour. The guide walked us through the small house, visiting Harry and Bess’s separate bedrooms. He then showed us the famous “Poker Table” where Truman and cabinet brass played poker and drank Bourbon. Harry was reportedly only a mildly skilled poker player. The dining area had hosted many of the famous of the era. It is now utilized for rentals by the small foundation that runs the museum. It is worth the brief visit ( 35 minutes) to walk where many of the famous of the era spent their time.
After the museum, we walked back through Mallory Square, stopping for some coffee at “bad asses.” We then walked the considerable length of Simonston street, enjoying the unique architecture that many call “Key West” style, with it’s peaked and metaled roofs, quasi new england gables and clap board siding. It was getting to be late morning and we were already tiring from the line of march. We stopped into a small internet cafe on Duval. We checked our e-mail and had another cup of good coffee. Walking down Duval, we watched as a tourist, on one of the ubiquitous motorized scooters, veered away from a car entering the intersection and had a painful crash with a metal sign. OUch! That must have hurt! It was windy and 69 degrees out, as we wandered back to the B & B for a chat with Ozzie Nelson. We read for a time and then drifted off with Ozzie.
Later that afternoon, we prepped and set out again for Mallory Square and the nightly ritual of watching the sun set. The throngs had again gathered. Some of the players were the same, some new. Whackos, entertainers and tourists all gathered for that brief hour period when day shifts into night. We watched a few acts, then settled in for the main finale of the sun setting. It amazes me that all these people gather every night just to see the sun set. It was 67 degrees and muggy out at sunset.
From Mallory Square, we walked along Schooners walk. We thought we would try seafood for dinner. “The Commodore” is a second floor restaurant overlooking a section of the marina. It is wood paneled, stark and nautical. We enjoyed a Berenger Cabernet while we perused the menu. The place was fast filling up. The caesar salads were agreeable. I had the Sesame Tuna, with wasabe taters. It was very good. Mary had the beef tips, with garlic shrimp. She enjoyed them as well. It is a comfortable and nice place to dine. ($126)
After dinner, we again performed the “Duval Crawl,” wandering down this busy thoroughfare and enjoying the sights and sounds of Bourbon street and times square. The bars were only starting to fill up. The hellions and the exotic wait until later to populate the pubs along Duval. We enjoyed the hectic ambiance and walked back to our B & B. It was muggy and in the 60’s out. We sat again on the porch, reading and enjoying a last glass of wine. It was a pleasant ritual. The relative peace of a B & B is much more pleasant than a hotel.
Inside, we watched President Bush give a policy address on Iraq. He was going to send another 23,000 American kids into that maelstrom. This whole ugliness reminded me of Viet Nam in the late 1960’s. We were hopelessly mired in that awful conflict as well. There seemed no end to it then and now. We were ready to return to the retirement farm in Ft. Myers. It had been an interesting stay in a storied venue, but it was time to head on in. We read for a time and surrendered to the sandman.
Thurs. Jan. 11, 2007- Key West, Florida.
We were up at 4 A.M. The god darn roosters, who wander freely in Key West, were crowing to beat the band. Curse them! We prepped for the day, packed our gear, checked out and set out Northward on U.S. #1 at 8:00 A.M.
As we exited Key West, we came upon a traffic accident headed South bound. It backed up the Key West,work bound traffic for 12 miles. Ouch! It was windy and 64 out as we sailed through the lower Keys, enjoying the white caps of the sea view along the way. In 2 & 1/2 hours we made it into Florida City and stopped for gas and coffee.($2.29 per gal)
We followed the expressway to Rte # 75 and then sailed off into the everglades. The wind was blowing steadily and the grass all around us waved in the wind. I saw a small alligator sunning himself of the banks of a canal, as we roared by along Alligator Alley. The birds were drifting along the wind currents and enjoying themselves, unconcerned with their surroundings. It is eye pleasing and interesting. Soon enough, we sailed through Naples and on up to the Daniels Parkway exit of Ft. Myers. The total time of travel had been a brief 5 & 1/2 hours from Key West to Ft, Myers., about 300 miles in length.
We unpacked, settled in, glad we had made the run.
Joseph Xavier Martin