Tropical escape, part 3
The Florida Keys
The Florida Keys had long been on Eric’s and my bucket lists. It was finally time to go! Come on along on a photo tour as we see what Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Buffett made a such a fuss about.
Here we go on the Overseas Highway, the 113-mile, 42-bridge, southern end of US 1, which links the Florida Keys to the mainland. Most of the highway is two-lane like this, but a few places have been upgraded to four-lane. Our destination: Key West.
We planned to drive straight through, but it wasn’t long before we pulled over to take pictures of that water. If you’ve ever been to the Caribbean, you know what I’m talking about—the colors are incredible. If you haven’t, well … you need to go.
The highway follows alongside the remains of the old railroad or the old highway (I couldn’t always tell which). The railroad, built in the 1920s, predates the highway, which was built in segments during the 1920s and 1930s. The continuous highway opened for traffic in 1938; it’s been partially updated.
Arriving in Key West, we made straight for famous Duval Street, a mile-long strip of tourist restaurants, loud bars, and tacky t-shirt shops. For some reason, Key West is overrun by feral chickens. They’re everywhere. People love them or hate them—I think it depends on whether they’re trying to get some sleep.
We hoofed it through the sauna-like air down to a long pier at the end of the street—the southernmost point in the US.
Later we learned that the pole at the end of the pier is not really the official southernmost point. The official southernmost point is the painted buoy at the corner of South Street and Whitehead Street. (It’s not a real buoy … it’s an old concrete sewer junction box that’s painted to look like a buoy! Ha! Tourists beware.)
But wait—that’s not the real southernmost point, either. The really real one is on nearby US Navy property and not accessible to civilians. Anyway … we were damn close.
It was getting on toward sunset, so we beat feet to Mallory Square, all the way at the other end of Duval. This is the iconic plaza where the crowd gathers every evening to watch the sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico behind Sunset Key. Every tourist on the island was there, plus souvenir vendors and performance artists … maybe even some locals. The place was packed, but we managed to find a spot at the rail, so to speak. I was so busy watching the sunset that I didn’t think about turning around and taking a picture of Mallory Square itself. Here’s one taken from a cruise ship, which gives you a much better perspective than I had.Here’s what was distracting me. Wow, what a show! I can’t possibly cull my photos down to one favorite shot, so enjoy the gallery. None of these photos has been Photoshopped or color-enhanced. (Click to enlarge.)
The next morning we toured the Hemingway Home and Museum use to get a cat fix. Ernest Hemingway and his wife Pauline lived in this charming house from 1931 until their 1940 divorce. We were lucky to be there when the African tulip tree was in bloom.
A plaque beneath this 1928 photo explains that Hemingway got the gash on his forehead when he yanked on a skylight chain, thinking it was the toilet chain. The skylight shattered over his head. I’m sure alcohol was not a factor.
Hemingway had a polydactyl cat, and the present-day house and gardens are crawling with kitties, some of whom are said to be descendants of Hemingway’s cat. Many are polydactyl. All are safe and content, and do what cats do in the heat: snooze. They even have a feeding station designed to match the house.
How about this for a bathroom? Windows on three sides! I love the Deco tile floor—fish are always at home in a bathroom.
We peeked in at Hemingway’s writing studio over the old carriage house. A suitably masculine place to hang out. But it’s blocked off … we could only stand in the doorway to look and imagine him typing the manuscript for To Have and Have Not.
From Papa Hemingway’s place, we walked to the other end of town (again) to catch a glass-bottomed catamaran cruise to the barrier reef. (Alas, I am neither swimmer nor snorkeler.) The Florida Barrier Reef is the third largest living coral reef in the world (behind Australia and Belize). I thought it would be cooler out on the water, but it was mercilessly hot and humid. The woman next to me mopped her face with a Kleenex, which disintegrated and stuck to her skin.
Back on shore, we walked some of the side streets. Just a block or two off Duval, Key West is quiet and distinctly Caribbean.
We strolled by Harry Truman’s Little White House, which was being set up for a wedding (even the bride’s little dog was wearing a lace gown). I was amazed to find coleus, which back home are small potted plants, growing taller than me!
Bahia Honda Key
We wanted to stay longer, but we had a schedule to keep and a wedding to get to, so back we went on US 1. We stopped to take photos of the Bahia Honda Bridge. This one was obviously a railroad bridge … right? Yes … and no. The new four-lane bridge sits to the north. Beside it, the old bridge is slowly crumbling into the sea. It was originally a railroad bridge, but when a hurricane wiped out many railroad bridges in 1935, the state bought what remained of the bridges and used them to build more of the highway. In this case, the pavement is on top of the railroad structure. Something tells me they wouldn’t get away with that these days.
In Marathon, we visited the Sea Turtle Hospital, an experience that I’ll always remember. This nonprofit hospital rehabilitates sea turtles that have been injured by boats or nets, have eaten trash, or are suffering from disease. It’s set up in an old motel, and the staff lives onsite. What a perfect use for an old property! The old salt-water pool is too dilapidated for humans, but it works just fine for turtles. Some of these turtles are permanent hospital residents. For instance, a collision with a boat can force air into the turtle’s body tissue, deforming its shell and causing it to float head-down, bottom-up. This condition, called bubble butt, can be compensated for by gluing weights to the turtle’s shell … but the weights will eventually fall off, so the turtle cannot safely to return to the sea.
That night we ate at a seaside restaurant whose boat dock was lit from underwater. As darkness fell, I snapped this otherworldly photo with my cell phone. I think it’s the shot of the trip.
One last stop before we returned to the mainland: John Pennecamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo, where we discovered a beautiful aquarium. After studying the sea life there, I was able to identify all the types of coral depicted in Finding Nemo.
We walked down a wooded trail and along the beach, where we found these large coral rocks. Easy to see remnants of sea life here.
As we were leaving, we passed the kayak rental. Why do these colorful kayaks remind me of fruit?
Goodbye, Florida Keys … we’ll be back someday!
Coming next: My final post about Florida, featuring gardens, lighthouses, and a wedding!