Assigned to write about the Florida Keys for our TourBook and online travel information, I stopped to explore several of the islands in the chain on my way to Key West, my final destination. I was hoping to find some hidden treasures, the type that normally aren’t found in the standard travel guide but are worth checking out, if only for the sake of having a few good stories to tell your buddies back home. Here are a few highlights.
There are different ways one can travel to and/or through the Keys – you can fly into the airports at Marathon or Key West, but in my opinion, if you do that, you’re missing the point. Or you can really see these tropical isles, wending your way on two or four wheels down U.S. 1 (otherwise known as the Overseas Highway) on a leisurely road trip.
I prefer the second option: piloting an air-conditioned automobile, singing along to my Blondie CDs (not exactly Jimmy Buffett, but “The Tide Is High” is about as tropical as my taste in music permits) and taking in the sights is much more enjoyable than sitting in a stuffy airplane.
Before I reach my first stop, Key Largo, I see the highway’s concrete barriers are painted a refreshing shade of aqua, a sign that things are different in the Keys. Later, I discover that the barriers were added in 2008 and that the color (Belize blue) was handpicked by Wyland, an artist well-known for his vivid, lifelike paintings of marine creatures.
Key Largo lies between mile markers 91-107. To many people, this town’s name automatically brings to mind the 1948 movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I had heard that part of the movie was filmed at the Caribbean Club, a lounge still standing today (mile marker 104). Of course, I had to go check it out, if only to walk on the same ground as Bogey and Bacall. The “Crib” (as the locals call it) is small and nondescript, except for the large blue and white sign outside that screams the club’s name and claim to fame.
I walked inside and took a look around – sure enough, the bar was filled with Bogart and Bacall memorabilia, and there was a small statue of Bogie guarding the back door. The rest of the decor was standard-issue dive bar with a few tables and chairs, a small stage where barefoot guitarists play, and a pool table: nothing fancy. I reached for my camera, and that’s when I thought I heard a few comments coming from the bar area, something about how tourists come in to take pictures without buying a drink. Oops; my bad. But I get it: I’m sure that tourists come here all the time, walk in, snap a few pictures and leave without buying a drink or saying a word. Since the late 1930s, the Club has been a hangout for locals who probably feel like this is their second home, and I can see how this sort of behavior might be somewhat insulting. (In my own defense, it was the middle of the day, a time when I usually don’t drink anything stronger than Coca-Cola, and I didn’t have a lot of time to waste, but I guess I could have plopped down a couple of bucks for a soda. Besides, I bet the regulars have some good stories to tell.)
So if you’re looking for some genuine Keys atmosphere, pull up a barstool and stay awhile (but don’t forget to buy a drink or two; Bogie probably bought his share.) And don’t forget to check out the postcard setting behind the club, where you’ll find Florida Bay and boat docks as far as the eye can see; I saw folks docking their boats and walking up to the club, most likely to quench their thirst with an ice-cold brew. Sounds like quite the life, doesn’t it?
A highlight of my trip, emphasis on the word light, was observing a sunset, Key Largo-style. If you asked most people where to see sunsets in the Keys, Key West would probably be the first place mentioned. Many visitors to the Keys watch the well-hyped sunset there, but while it’s quite lovely, the crowds and performers at Mallory Square detract from what I think should be a quiet, awe-inspiring experience. Not so in Key Largo, where you can enjoy nature’s show without feeling like a canned sardine.
I discovered this serendipitously as dusk approached on a lovely evening, when I just happened to be traipsing around the grounds of the Marriott Key Largo Bay Resort near its Breezer’s Tiki Bar (mile marker 103.8). There were only a handful of people around; a couple on a bench, a few kids under a tiki hut. I looked toward the still waters of the bay, and the sun began its graceful descent toward the horizon. The palm trees and tiki huts that bordered the bay became black silhouettes as the sky took on a heavenly gold and peach glow. It was the quietly awesome experience I had been hoping for.
Another moment that stands out was my encounter with a Key deer. On my last trip, I had driven through Big Pine Key, land of the diminutive deer, but to my dismay I spied not a one. An endangered species, Key deer are the smallest race of deer in North America, only 25-30 inches in height at the shoulder. There are only 700-800 in existence and they can only be found in the Florida Keys, primarily at the National Key Deer Refuge on Big Pine Key. The deer often venture out of their safe habitats to forage on nearby roadsides and sometimes approach people for handouts, but about 30-40 a year are killed by motor vehicles while crossing the roads. As a result, it is illegal to feed them, the speed limit on US 1 in Big Pine Key is 35 mph and I was hyper-vigilant about my driving.
Driving south on US 1, I turned onto Key Deer Boulevard and drove slowly, keeping my eyes peeled for an adorable deer. To my surprise, it didn’t take very long at all. On the opposite side of the street, I saw one foraging through the scrub and munching on some fresh greens. I pulled over on my side of the road, parked the car, grabbed my camera and waited for traffic to clear before I crossed the road. I was pretty certain that the deer would run off as soon as she saw me, but she stayed right where she was, slowly moving every now and then to another green patch. She shyly glanced at me from time to time with gorgeous brown eyes (probably looking to see if I had any food) and I stayed a distance away.
I just wanted to stare at this beautiful creature for as long as I could and I didn’t want her to run off. After a minute or so of standing very still and holding my breath, I slowly and carefully took a few photos. The deer started to move further into the scrub and I pressed the shutter release several more times, wanting to capture this moment forever. And then she was gone. I don’t believe I have ever felt such inner peace, quiet bliss and just plain awe as I did right then. Thank you, deer. Read more Florida Keys blogs