The Florida Keys
We were in two minds as to whether to drop all the way down to the Everglades, the Keys and Miami. We’d already seen swamps and gators, so the Everglades didn’t hold as much of a draw as it might have done otherwise. Neither of us had strong feelings about Miami, either way. For me, it was the Florida Keys that really warranted more driving. I have some vague memories of the Keys from visiting as a kid with my family. Interestingly, as we drove down the US-1 this time around, making our way across the 100 mile stretch to Key West, the image I had of the keys was proved to be not accurate at all. I remembered something closer to a small series of desert islands separated by a few causeways and bridges, spanning at most, 15-20 miles. Many of the keys are actually pretty big, especially Key Largo at the northern end and Key West at the south. However, the tropical Caribbean feel I remembered matched up.
On the drive down, we stopped at Sombrero Beach, around the 50 mile marker or so, and went swimming. The other beaches we’d visited in Florida were amazing, but this is my favorite so far. It was a little smaller and less busy, with clear, warm aqua water in which fish could be seen swimming in the shallows. We even noticed a small barracuda just a few feet from the shore. The waters are so calm in this area, we were able to wade out past the people luxuriating in the shallows and swim distance parallel to the beach. On the way back to Truck, we came across a massive lizard. I have no idea what type he was—I think probably an iguana, which are on the Keys, but not native.
Key West was a pleasure. It is certainly touristy, but when I’m in tourist mode, it doesn’t really bother me, it can sometimes even make it more fun. The heat and humidity were not a pleasure, but I guess that’s the downside of the tropics. We walked around and watched the sun set at the west facing part of the Key surrounded by many others doing exactly the same thing. We arrived in Key West mid-afternoon, but waited until early evening to pursue our flaneuristic tendencies and hit the streets. I remember from my childhood visit seeing Ernest Hemingway’s house, so we swung by to see if any of his famously six-toed cats were hanging out. They were! We didn’t pay to go in to the house (it was closed by this time anyhow) but saw the cats through the gates. Very cute, indeed. On most streets you can encounter two bizarre things: free-roaming chickens and trash cans full of green coconuts that people have drunk the water from and discarded. The palm trees were heavy with the coconuts, so I guess many people take advantage of the local amenities in this way.
After Key West, we stopped at the Bahia Honda state park to go on a snorkeling trip to a nearby coral reef. This was a truly amazing experience. As we boarded the boat with our rented masks, fins and snorkels, the captain went over all the safety regulations and asked if anyone would like to leave at this point, freshly gifted with the particulars of what the 5 mile journey to the reef ahead held. Everyone stayed onboard. After a 15-20 minute boat ride, we neared a collection of other small boats and dropped anchor. The captain gave some more instruction and was about to let us get into the water, when he saw a shark in the water. He exclaimed, “look everyone! A shark!” At this point, we figured the trip was probably canceled and we’d have to turn around and head back to land, the excursion ruined by a rare encounter with a large toothy fish. Instead, the captain pronounced, “right then. In you go!” It transpired that although the 4-6 ft. long Caribbean reef sharks are known to bite humans, it’s only in murky water where they don’t recognize whichever appendage they first come across. Sharks process the world partially through the “bite it and see” approach, according to the captain. Once the shark realizes that the limb in question does not have the fishy flavor that they view as an essential part of their dining experience, they simply swim off in search of more favorable snacks.
Once we were in the water, we were swimming maybe 8 feet above the sharks. We saw at least 2 of them, possibly 3. It was a surreal experience, but they really didn’t seem bothered or interested in us. There were a huge variety of fish of different colors, shapes and sizes. We saw a few barracuda and some other people on our boat saw rays, but we missed them. There was a small motorboat parked 20 ft. or so away from where our boat was. Underneath it was a goliath grouper. I’ve never heard of this fish before, or seen one, and the first thing that comes to mind is its resemblance to a prehistoric creature, some kind of old-skool dinosaur fish-thing. It was about 3-4 ft. tall and 6 ft. long. Apparently it was a juvenile and the older fish can weigh up to 300lbs. The grouper just hung out in the boat’s shadow, surrounded by lots of smaller fishes, also in the shadow. I’m not sure if the grouper had some kind of protection racket going on, but the small fish sure seemed to enjoy his company.
After the trip was over, we hit the road again, at this point looking forward to escaping the sticky heat of Florida.