Key to the Keys

Soak up the sun and fun along Florida’s 125-mile is­land chain

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - YVETTE CAR­DOZO

Wa­ter, wa­ter ev­ery­where.

What else would you ex­pect as you travel along an is­land chain that stretches for 125 miles?

Wel­come to the Florida Keys, or as one lo­cal put it, the only Caribbean is­lands you can drive to and take in scuba div­ing, stand-up pad­dle­board yoga, lus­cious seafood, fish­ing, jet pack­ing, ly­ing around on the beach and vis­it­ing mu­se­ums.

When I was a kid, fly­ing into the Keys usu­ally meant land­ing in Marathon, half­way up the chain. Jet flights didn’t start ar­riv­ing at what is now called Key West In­ter­na­tional Air­port un­til 1968.

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 … and fly home from Mi­ami.

KEY WEST

There’s a joy­ful sun­down crazi­ness with mu­sic, jug­glers, tightrope walk­ers, a drum­mer, fresh co­conuts filled with na­ture’s an­swer to Ga­torade and some­times a mer­maid charm­ingly play­ing her gui­tar. A line of cell­phone,

tablet- sport­ing folk, arms raised, try to cap­ture the or­ange ball of sun as it slowly, col­or­fully slips be­low the hori­zon.

There’s so much to do in Key West, you 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 reg­u­lar pickup points.

A map lists 23 tours, mu­se­ums and the­aters, but it doesn’t be­gin to cover all you can do:

■ The Hem­ing­way Home and Mu­seum is prob­a­bly what vis­i­tors head for first. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing trip through the writer’s life in Key West. You can see his type­writer, the 53 de­scen­dants of his six-toed cats and hear about a few of the scan­dals. The swim­ming pool cost $20,000 in 1938 dol­lars. As one story goes, Hem­ing­way flung 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.

■ The Mel Fisher Mar­itime Mu­seum has Span­ish galleon gold trea­sures found by trea­sure hunter Mel Fisher, de­tails of the hunt, the dis­cov­er­ies, the slave trade and piracy.

■ Go kayak­ing at night with Ibis Bay Pad­dle Sports. You leave from be­hind The Stoned Crab cafe (in­ex­pen­sive stone crab … yum) and pad­dle out to a salt pond in kayaks with see-through plas­tic bot­toms. Light sticks show the shal­low un­der­wa­ter world. We saw stingrays, conch shells, sea stars, a cou­ple of Florida lob­sters and a baby shark. Our en­thu­si­as­tic guide, Riane, net­ted urchins, sea cu­cum­bers and more for us to see up close.

■ Learn about coral reef restora­tion by hear­ing a talk by Dave Vaughan of Mote Marine Trop­i­cal Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory at Fort Zachary Tay­lor State Park beach. The lab­o­ra­tory’s sci­en­tists 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 per­cent 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,” he said.

You can snorkel out (gear can be rented) and watch them drill and ce­ment. A nat­u­ral reef nearby, in five feet of wa­ter, teems with thou­sands of tiny sil­ver­sides swim­ming in un­du­lat­ing cur­tains. There are larger fish — snook, tar­pon, chubs, snap­per, par­rot­fish — within a hun­dred yards of shore.

Per­haps my fa­vorite Key West res­tau­rant was the cen­tury-old Blue Heaven in the his­toric Ba­hama Vil­lage neigh­bor­hood, with ta­bles among huge banyan trees and old Key West bun­ga­lows. Break­fast was Keys shrimp on grits, lob­ster BLT, lob­ster Bene­dict and a slice of au­then­tic Key lime pie. The place has a rock­ing night scene with bands and a full bar.

HEAD­ING NORTH

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 with Sarah L. Sul­li­van of Seren­ity Eco Ther­apy. It was se­ri­ously cool.

There aren’t many de­cent beaches in the Keys be­cause of the hard coral rock. How­ever, Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key is ranked among the top 10 beaches in the coun­try.

Next up, the Tur­tle Hos­pi­tal in Marathon. 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, in­clud­ing log­ger­heads which can chomp through a conch shell and leatherbacks that can be 6 feet long, weigh 2,000 pounds and eat 85 per­cent of their body weight in jel­ly­fish a day.

It’s a pop­u­lar stop so it’s best to make reser­va­tions in ad­vance.

One ad­van­tage of vis­it­ing the Keys in the sum­mer is the Lower Keys Un­der­wa­ter Mu­sic Fes­ti­val, now in its third decade. While at least 100 boats floated above us, those with scuba cer­ti­fi­ca­tion dove among the reefs of Looe Key and watched the mer­maids pre­tend to play un­der­wa­ter in­stru­ments, as a wa­ter-theme playlist pumped songs from The Lit­tle Mer­maid, the Bea­tles, the theme from Gil­li­gan’s Is­land and much more. It was like swim­ming through a fog of sound.

Rob­bie’s in Is­lam­orada 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 aimed at vis­i­tors who are not nec­es­sar­ily die-hard 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.

A mark­ing sys­tem on each fish keeps ev­ery­one’s catch iden­ti­fied. A cou­ple of crew­men then toss snap­per, grunts and more into each per­son’s bucket.

Then it’s time to filet the fish (bet­ter them than you), so you can take a bag of filets to the cafe where it’s cooked and served with fries and slaw. Our snap­per was mouth-wa­ter­ing.

At Chef Michael’s in Is­lam­orada, I had the best lob­ster of the trip. It was pre­pared as tem­pura and it vir­tu­ally melted on my tongue. There also was fish ce­viche served in a co­conut. The ce­viche was crammed with shrimp, lob­ster, lime and or­ange juice, co­conut milk, onion and ci­lantro, plus jalapenos to give it a kick.

Also in Is­lam­orada was Tiki Jet, a James Bond jet­pack straight from Thun­der­ball, but pow­ered with wa­ter in­stead of a gas en­gine. It comes in a vest-like con­trap­tion with a thick hose tail through which wa­ter streams or boots that look like a pumped-up ver­sion of some­thing you would ski in.

The vest is eas­ier for a be­gin­ner. 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 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.

We wound up our Keys ad­ven­ture at Sun­down­ers, a cafe on Key Largo. Great views, great fishy ap­pe­tiz­ers. Do not miss the mango co­conut mo­jito.

Spe­cial to the Demo­crat-Gazette/YVETTE CAR­DOZO

Al­li­son Wilkie demon­strates a yoga pose on a stand-up pad­dle­board at Bahia Honda State Park.

Florida Keys News Bureau

An­nette Robertson ex­plores a por­tion of the ar­ti­fi­cial reef in the Florida Keys Na­tional Marine Sanc­tu­ary off Key Largo.

Florida Keys News Bureau

Ni­cole Pacha (left) and Sarah Brun­ner pre­tend to play in­stru­ments at the Lower Keys Un­der­wa­ter Mu­sic Fes­ti­val off Big Pine Key, Fla.

Spe­cial to the Demo­crat-Gazette/ YVETTE CAR­DOZO

A plate of stone crab, oys­ters, Tor­tuga pink shrimp and other de­lights await din­ers at The Stoned Crab in Key West.

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