America through the Windshield--Getting to Know the First Americans travel blog

February 20-27, 2012

Key West Adventures

Serendipity is a fact of life so we were not surprised when two publications that we receive each month had color photos and articles about Key West arrived in our forwarded mail in early February when we were in North Fort Myers, Florida. The Keys are a group of subtropical islands (approximately 1,700) that lie southeast of the tip of Florida. Only a few of them are inhabited (30?). They split into the Atlantic Ocean and they jut east of the Gulf of Mexico.

We were fascinated with the beauty of the Keys and Key West. It was much more tropical than we had imagined. The Bougainvillea plants were growing wild and used in gardens everywhere. We have no idea how long they bloom; but, they were gorgeous in the brightest hot pink, orange and peachy red as the vines climbed over walls, other plants and were even cut into shrubs. We saw them in Fort Myers, but they were not nearly as prolific there as they are here—guess they must be at home in this Tropical Paradise. When we drove in and saw the colorful iguanas we were reminiscent of Cancun and the Yucatan Pennisula during the summer of 2002. We were beach bums and historical guides for a full week with Jennifer and two friends who were enjoying being teenagers and headed to the greener pastures of college life. When we made a day trip to Tulum a prehistoric site where the main pyramid is literally on the cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, everywhere we looked there were iguanas. One of the locals was conducting a tour and we learned that it is easy to attract an iguana when you offer a red blossom. He held a red hibiscus in his hand and the iguana slowly crawled to nibble on the tasty bloom.

On one of our first outings when we walked the dogs we saw one iguana, Brenda ran back to get the camera. It’s a good thing that she did; we were never close enough again to get good shots of them. They enjoyed climbing up the palm and coconut trees. The residents of RVs parked under the trees shared their excitement when the iguanas were on their roofs. They were about 18 inches long with paws that ended with rather long claws that looked about 3 to 4 inches long. At first look they were a bit intimidating; however, everyone was drawn to them since they were such uncommon and strange looking reptiles. The iguanas we saw in the Yucatan were grayish from head to toe as they climbed over the old stone walls of the pyramid ruins; but, these were like tropical birds with bright yellow and orange colors intermingled with shades of goldenrod and brown. Their long claws were full of color almost appearing as if they had been polished using a bright fluorescent orange polish.

Welcome to Key West where every day the residents leave their homes and go to work. Thank goodness there was a dentist who could work me into his busy schedule. The morning of our very first full day began with a trip to a local dentist in Key West. When we were in North Fort Myers Brenda had been craving Mary Jane peanut butter candies and we had found them at the local Walgreens when we picked up prescriptions. After dinner she eagerly bit into a Mary Jane. Uh oh! What had happened? She pulled the candy out of her mouth before she chewed any of it. She was furious at herself. She looked at the candy and went straight to the bathroom mirror. Yep!! She had pulled off a veneer. It was a weekend day and we would be pulling out so she could not make an appointment until we arrived in Key West. There was nothing to do but wait!! She was so furious with herself that she didn’t tell Greg until later that evening. She has not craved a Mary Jane since then. This little incident may have ruined her craving for chewy candies.

Brenda began reading everything that we could find on the Keys. We had a few brochures, a few references in some of our travel books and of course we picked up more at a Visitors’ Center. We learned that Key West was actually one of the earlier cities in Florida. At the turn of the century, early 1900s it was the largest city in Florida. It was a hub of business and had been a center of operation for both pirates and seamen, beginning with the Native Americans and the Cuban Indians. When the earliest settlers wanted to access the Gulf Coast via departures from New York and the original coastal colonies, they sailed from the major port cities and were then deposited at Key West. Local mariners were then employed and sailed the adventurous individuals to the Gulf Coast sites where plantations were being established. Who knew? Unfortunately in 1930 Key West went bankrupt. It was cut off from the growth that the United States was experiencing with the advent of industrialization. It could no longer be as competitive since its entire economy was built on seafaring with no access to railroads or public roads between towns.

Being in Key West caused us to feel as if we were far far away from the good old U.S.A. The dress for everyone was summer clothing and sandals or bare feet. At the KOA RV park (the southernmost KOA in America, located on Sugarloaf Key) we ran the air conditioners almost the entire time, even though the Gulf and ocean breezes felt so cool when you were in the shade. One of the seasonal employees said that the heat felt more like the summertime weather rather than late winter. It was ok with us—not cold at all. It was easy to stay in the RV park for those interested in sunning, swimming, boating, participating in water sports or fishing. One of the older bridges was within just a few hundred yards from our camp and the perfect public spot for fishing.

At our campground there was a wonderful private beach looking out toward the fishing bridge with access to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. And of course there was a large pool and a tiki hut that was large enough to host a live DJ or small band along with an afternoon/evening bar. The small board walk had piers for private boats and rental boats and kayaks. The highlight of the pier area was a covered work bench where the fishermen could clean their catches of the day and throw the trimmings right into the sound. This proved to be quite the place for the gathering of pelicans. They hovered nearby perched in the trees where they roosted in the evenings and as the fisherman returned from their days on the water. The pelicans chose to draw nearer to the work bench as the fishermen walked over to it with their ice chests full of fish. Pelicans began flying down from their roosts and landing near the pier. They swam close to the wooden pier when the fishermen began to set up the work area with his sharp cutting tools and his catch of the day. They had been conditioned to draw near—it was time for free fresh fish. They would grow more animated as they inched closer waiting for the first pitch. Who would catch the first pitch of the day? Feathers ruffled and feet paddled as they awaited each pitch. So, at the end of each day they stayed nearby and ever alert and attentive. They stayed far enough away that they could watch each fisherman as he cut, carved, cleaned and then made the pitch. The pitching act was the most provoking. As the fisherman raised his arm and hand to make the pitch, the pelicans eagerly anticipated the throw and begin to swim and fly forward climbing over those who were near the front as they elbowed their way forward in their eagerness to be the catcher of the moment. Brenda was entranced with the pelicans. She stood several times and watched the orchestrated event. They were like puppies waiting for treats or waiting for a ball to be thrown.

Traveling through the deep southern reaches of Florida and the Keys we became familiar with Mangroves. The tree gives the appearance of a gigantic shrub. It grows in salty water and filters out the salt water as it takes in the water it needs for survival. It must have soil, but very little it seems. The limbs are arches that sometimes dip into the water at both ends with shoots above. The Mangrove trees can be viewed as one tiny tree or in large groves. The root/trunk systems appear to be interwoven when they grow in clumps or groves. The largest groves we saw were the ones at the edge of waterways such as river banks, coastlines of the ocean, Gulf of Mexico and throughout the Everglades and other large swampy areas. As they grow taller (the tallest we saw were probably 6 to 10 feet from the surface of the water) waterways can be opened up. We read about the Native Indians, the early settlers, and the locals living in the swampy areas and having trails that they routinely use in their boats, canoes and airboats. When in the Keys we saw advertisements for kayak tours through Mangrove swamps. (Brenda was too much of a coward to even consider such an adventure; however, it did appear to be a wonderful way to get up-close views of the native birds, reptiles and fish).

Now we all know that Key Lime Pie originated right here—in the Keys—so the story goes. There were signs everywhere. Key Lime pie slices or whole pies were advertised all along Highway 1—restaurants, bakeries, ice cream shops, grocery stores, etc. We knew we had to have pie and we were prepared. We had purchased key limes in North Fort Myers. We had graham cracker crumbs so we were ready. Brenda mixed up and baked our pie, awaiting for Jennifer’s arrival—not to be cut until she arrived. We first ate fresh Key Lime pie when we vacationed on Jekyll Island, just off the coast of southern Georgia many years ago when Jennifer was in middle school. We loved it so much that we found a recipe and made one as soon as we left the beach and arrived at Grandma’s house. It’s such a yummy dessert that we rarely treat ourselves to it. But, when in the Keys one should eat and enjoy the bounty of the natives. We did wait and it was delicious as we reverently had only one slice each day!!

We loved the historic Key West district, very reminiscent of the French Quarter without towering buildings, being much cleaner and adjacent to aqua colored water that was only a few steps away. A great place to vacation—lots of little shops, really neat restaurants in very old homes, beautiful greenery everywhere with lots of blossoms in all of the yards. The brightest flower of all was the Hibiscus in its bright royal colors of red, yellow, orange, hot pink and even coral. Many of the old homes were waddle and daub (tabby), instead of rocks and limestone with mortar the mortar incorporated shells and coral. Just underneath the thin layer of soil in the lower Keys is old coral. These Keys are actually ancient coral beds that are no longer under water. The bleached white coral is literally everywhere in walls, embedded in the unpaved streets, in old mortar, shell and coral fences, used as garden stones, used as door stops and even for decorative pieces.

One of the local spots that we passed had a sign that stated “home of the original Sloppy Joe”. Ernest Hemingway’s house was right downtown and there were many signs stating that he frequented certain bars, hotels, restaurants. Apparently, the Sloppy Joe was one of his regular haunts. One of the coolest things we saw was a three-wheel adult tricycle that was so decorated with neon colored lights and rope lights that it was difficult to believe that it was a tricycle. We only saw it in the evenings, just as the daylight faded and the skies were turning into night. And, before you saw it you heard this great 1960s soulful rock music as it grew louder and louder. Everyone would turn around and there it would be. A tripped out tricycle with a disco-loud sound system slowly moving up or down the street with a little old-old man all dressed up and peddling along smiling, waving right along the street with the slow moving traffic. He would pause for pictures and was part of the aura of the nighttime. We never saw him receive or ask for handouts—who was this little old man? And, why did he do this every night?

Many of the quaint Victorian houses have been beautifully restored and look so majestic and quaint in their beach whites and pastel colors. Many of the private homes have been opened as bed and breakfasts. In the heart of the historic district many of the larger homes have been transformed into great restaurants. The pastel colors were seen throughout the Keys in residential and commercial areas. All those lovely porches, both at entry level and the balconies at the second floor level must have been beautiful places to catch the tropical breezes, sip tropical drinks and watch the waters as boats and seaman moved about in the evenings. The Spanish architecture was also very prominent; lots of houses with terra cotta roof tiles covering white washed stucco walls of homes and privacy walls that often surrounded the more elite residences and hotels that usually sported gated entries. Another residential style that we had not considered was the boat. Harbored between the Keys and near the shores of the Keys were small, medium and gigantic houseboats and sailboats. We even saw a “shanty” boat. It looked like something that might have been designed by Huckleberry Finn. We saw first- hand that southern Florida has many homeless individuals. Apparently they are drawn to the warmer climate where living outdoors is not unbearable. There were a few panhandlers in Ocala, Florida; but, we never saw any homeless individuals panhandling in the Keys. Quite sad for our great U.S.A., but a real fact when individuals have no jobs or homes.

We actually saw a Key West sunset! The brick paved harbor named Mallory Square held a daily Sunset Celebration. It was the perfect place to see the end of the day as the sun easily slid into the ocean carrying with it the rose toned, gold hued and pumpkin colors gliding into the twilight of the evening. It was a breathtaking view as two sailboats cruised past the harbor enjoying the same sunset; along with adding their silhouettes to our view. The daily event is well attended with much commercial fanfare. The Mardi Gras atmosphere was enhanced with the adjacent outdoor bars serving tropical punches in hurricane glasses, frozen beverages in paper and plastic cups, even coconut flavored pina coladas served in coconuts recently cut from the coconut trees. The street vendors and artists hawked their wares that ranged from juggling acts, musicians filling the air with melodic sounds, souvenir hounds hawking their homemade or mass produced gifts and the wonderful golden retriever who gingerly took dollar bill donations and then even more carefully dropped them into the hat for his master playing the guitar. There was only one performer who left our ears in pain, an older vocalist who had difficulty hitting the correct notes of the music she chose for the evening.

There were two attractions that tourists were drawn to see. One was the southernmost point of the U.S.A. on public lands. Tourists literally lined up to snap photos at this well marked site. The second location was the MILE 0 marker on Highway 1 (also known as the Overseas Highway) in Key West—again tourists wait systematically as they take turns posing with the marker. We really liked the sightings of the pink taxis that scooted about town. They were busy on the streets along with thousands of rental bikes, scooters, small motorcycles and rental cars (exactly like Little Tyke cars) that were about the size of golf carts. The tourists were like little ants marching along the sidewalks with their many treasures of the day. Lots of sunglasses, smiles and jovial individuals were on foot or being wheeled toward their next destinations. Lots of people at all times of the day, morning, noon and evening.

We learned that Key West is closer to Cuba than it is to Miami. It has been said that on some nights the Havana Lights can be seen when the atmospheric conditions are just right. It is only 90 miles away.

Jennifer flew in on a Thursday, right after lunch. She had great flights from Nashville and Miami and even enjoyed the conversations with fellow passengers both in the air and on the ground. We loved sharing our Key West adventures with her as we explored Key West and its little shops and restaurants. It was super nice to have her with us 24 hours a day as we planned our adventures then shared our favorites afterwards. We were fortunate that she was able to get away from work for a long weekend. She and Greg had an awesome experience on a jet skis. We gave Jennifer a choice, swim with the dolphins or go for a jet ski tour. Without hesitation she chose the jet ski tour. Greg signed them up for a two-hour tour around Key West. It was a 27 mile tour where they traveled both on the Gulf Coast calm waters and the great waves of the Atlantic Ocean. They had a blast along with the other 6 tourists. They had the opportunity to see and learn about the island and the opportunity to play in the waves. Afterwards, when they walked back to the registration desk to join Brenda it was most obvious that they were physically exhausted. Two hours of gripping handlebars and hanging onto to jet skis jumping over the waves had taken lots of calories and had used muscles that they had not recently been using. What a great way to spend a Saturday morning. Then home for showers and lunch.

We loved having her with us and sharing our adventures together for those days that simply flew by. On Sunday morning when she boarded the plane she refused to dress for winter; instead she boarded the plane like a true tourist. She had a great tan, blonder hair from laying out in the sun, and a cute short skirt and lightweight shirt with sandals She knew she had to pack a jacket, but she just did not want to board the plane in winter clothes. It was cold when she got back to Nashville—but her tropical memories got her through the drive back home.

We had some great seafood while in Key West and while in the Keys. All of the seafood, fruits and vegetables were beautifully presented and tasted wonderful. Surprisingly, the costs were not unreasonable; however, we were not at the AAA listings but in the historic areas on the streets, not in the hotels. The patio and porch like areas of the restaurants were our favorites. Greg did a super job in researching the restaurants using paper and electronic resources. So far his choices have been excellent to superior. Brenda says that she is thinking that she’ll keep him close by for a while longer.

Brenda is the sweet-drink lover in our family, so on our last night with Jennifer in Key West we stopped at one of the local bars that had an entire wall of frozen, tropical colored and named drinks. Brenda had a frozen pina colada; Greg had a strawberry with chocolate frozen daiquiri; along with Jennifer’s order for a frozen margarita. We sat in the open air bar right after sunset under ceiling fans with our paper cups then decided to head to the car. Taking paper cups onto the streets is totally accepted just as in New Orleans.

We found garage and street parking readily available throughout the Keys and in Key West . Of course, the street parking was less expensive and it took a little longer as one searched for that ideal parking spot that was not yet taken. We drove into Key West several times during the daylight and sunset times and found the drives, the parking and the walking to be satisfying experiences as we engulfed our senses with the tropical sights and sounds. It is easy to see how Hemingway and other writers found the tropical area to be the perfect place to read, drink, eat, socialize and write.

Throughout our stay in the Keys we continued to hear roosters crowing (even in our RV campground) and occasionally we would actually see small, but brightly colored roosters boasting the shiniest of charcoal tail feathers that looked as if they were part of a decorative headdress. Their body featherings were even more spectacular in small patches of colors of burnt orange, brick red, deep yellow, purple sheens among the black and charcoal colored feathers with healthy red combs and sparkly darting eyes in various shades ranging from a deep yellow to the black of night blues. The first place we saw them was at a Gas Mart (like a 7/11 with gas); a small flock of baby chicks along with one hen and three or four roosters. This was quite strange, certainly not expected. They were definitely “open range”. These birds were not in cages. They appeared to be free spirits. One might expect to see this in the countryside or in farm country, not here. We took a few pictures and made a mental note that we should ask someone about these roosters.

We again heard roosters crowing and saw lone roosters walking around in Key West. One evening while there we actually saw a vendor who was petting a rather large, light feathered rooster that was literally standing on his booth counter. The rooster appeared delighted to be stroked as this guy continually stroked his back. Brenda just could not resist. She walked up and listened to the salesman’s pitch per a haunted tour offered from his employer. After she waited for quite a few long minutes she finally had the chance to seek the answer to our question regarding these free range roosters. “Tell me about these roosters that we keep seeing who are just freely walking around”. His prompt response was unexpected. It seems that Key West had a large population of “cock fighting” roosters which was legal for a number of years; however, in the not too distant past the city council ruled that cock fighting would no longer be legal and that it should stop and desist. No arrangements were made for the care of the roosters (and it appears that it was illegal for them to be killed) so now there are roaming roosters that have become part of the Key West aura. Now, this is fine for tourists and many of the locals; however, there appears to be an undercurrent of those locals who think the roaming roosters to be pests, since they have no boundaries, they can be found everywhere. They choose where they will to roam and where they will to roost; so the locals often awaken to find that a rooster has been in their yards and left their marks on porches, atop cars, on benches, in shrubs, near pools, etc. It is apparent that the roosters’ days may be numbered. Who knows? It could be that chicken and dumplings becomes a delicacy of the Keys if some of the locals have their way.

We saw that many of the houses and public buildings were built up with garages underneath. Through our reading we learned that legislation passed required all construction of buildings, both residential and commercial (effective a set date) must be built above the flood level. That helped us to understand why only some of the buildings were built on stilts. One of the more obvious buildings was a Gas Mart (think 7/11 with gas pumps). It was built up on an earthen mound then raised even higher on wooden stilts. The only way to enter the building (other than the gas pumps) was to walk up the many steps then enter the double doors. This was a bit unusual but so logical per flooding from tidal waves from tropical storms.

We explored the various Keys , most of them are rather small and provide primarily residential housing, both rental and private property. On February 22 we went to Bahia (Bay-yuh) Honda State Park. It is said to have the most beautiful and popular beaches in the Keys. It wasn’t one long beach, instead it was a rather large island (key) that had numerous beaches along the shoreline intermingled with low tropical growth. The beach that Greg walked on had a pile of grasses from the ocean. The grassy pile that was along the entire beach looked as if someone had used a yard rake to get the grasses pulled out of the lapping waves. With further reading we learned that this long pile of grasses was a “wrack line” which consisted of dead algae, sea grass and tiny sea critters called amphipods. The grass pile line marked the upper most reaches of high tide all along the shoreline. Most of the beaches were facing the OCEAN? It had a small RV campground that only had electrical hookups, no water or sewer hookups. Interspersed along the edges were hidden campgrounds that had no services or only electricity. These sites were embedded in the tropical growth. Each campsite was hidden from view with tropical growth on three or four sides sometimes having direct views of the beach and private access paths to the beach.

The public beaches did have parking lots plus there was a marina where boats, both large and small were docked with the availability to rent kayaks and canoes. We also learned that the tropical vegetation is a veritable laboratory for biologists, botanists, etc. for the variety of plants that grow here. Plants come here via birds, prevailing winds, hurricane force winds, etc. from the Caribbean and Cuba—a neat fact to know! We assume that the tropical selection of plants continue to expand as new varieties arrive to take root in the fertile soil of this island.

The biggest draw for us on Bahia Key was the opportunity to literally walk out on a portion of the original railroad bridge that was built to connect the Keys during the years 1905-1912. Quite an expensive and ominous undertaking. Henry Flagler was a multimillionaire who wintered in Florida where he built a winter mansion which is now a museum in Miami? He was a wealthy oil tycoon and real estate developer. A railway ran from St. Augustine to Homestead, south of Miami and well north of the Keys. In 1905 Flagler decided to extend the railway to Key West after hearing that construction of the Panama Canal would begin. He was a shrewd businessman and realized that the building of the Panama Canal would bring more trade to those deep ports that could serve as ports of departure and entry. Key West would be the closest deep-water port near the canal. We also suspect that he could see that money was to be made if the Keys could be made more accessible for the shipment of food, goods and tourists. Winter tourism was growing into an industry as the industrial giants of the northeast and other wealthy millionaires discovered the more temperate winter weather of the south ranging from the southernmost parts of Georgia to the far southern finger of Florida.

Flagler privately funded the railway extension to Key West. It was such an outrageous building concept that it was referred to by the locals as Flagler’s Folly until it was completed and began to prove its profitability. After seven years and $50 million for construction Key West was connected to the North American land mass via railway beds and bridges. When Flagler was 82 years old he rode the first train on the Overseas Railway into Key West.

The bridge at Bahia Key was crossing the deepest channel among the Keys, the Spanish Channel. There were days when the crews of workmen could only work two 45 minute blocks of time at low tide. It was an awesome experience to walk on the bridge and to look over and see the tropical waters of this channel. Keep in mind that the bridges were built for the trains of the day and were quite narrow. Unlike today’s bridges that have the low concrete railings along the sides, these bridges were constructed using deeply sunken pilings that were built of stone. The bridges were structured high above the water (sometimes with swing bridges over channels to allow the movement of tall sailboats through the channels) and had tall vertical and horizontal steel beams to support the heavy loads of the trains. They were massive behemoths to build and to maintain.

The Overseas Railway was costly to build and maintain. It was a commercial success; however the unexpected happened on Labor Day in 1935 when a massive hurricane hit destroyed much of the Middle Keys. It has been stated that it was a category 5. Portions of roads, bridges, marinas, homes, businesses and some communities were severely damaged. The damage was overwhelming with some passenger trains being enroute and being blown off the tracks. As a result of the massive damage and the need for costly repairs Flagler sold the rights to the railroad line to the U.S. Government. The rail lines were replaced with vehicular roadways and bridges. Some of the bridges were totally rebuilt, others built using the same deep footings and those few remaining bridges that were minimally damaged were used but in a dramatically different manner. The bridge that we were seeing today is one of the original bridges that has the vehicular bridge at the top of the metal vertical and cross beams. The bridges were too narrow to be used for two lanes needed for the accommodation of cars. Therefore, the bridge is extremely high, built above the original railroad bed, sitting atop the original structure with a concrete bed and the typical concrete railings used in the construction of bridges in the late 1930s early 1940s. Discovering our history continues to amaze us.

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