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Story and photos by Yvette Cardozo

High on Adventure, May 2017


Florida Keys panorama of Faro Blanco Resort
Florida Keys panorama from Faro Blanco Resort

     Water, water everywhere...

     Which is to be expected 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.

     Scuba diving, SUP yoga, luscious seafood, fishing, jet packing. Yes, also lying around on the sand, and visiting museums. And did I mention the seafood? Yes, I did.

     For me, this all happened in the month of July...hot, muggy, sticky. But except for the underwater music festival, anyone can do any of these things in more comfy weather during fall, winter, early spring.

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

     Oh heck, the Key West airport is still cute, quaint, devoid of jetways, and sporting - over its arrival doors - a huge replica of the giant concrete buoy that marks the southernmost point in the US.

  Key West airport   Landing at Key West Airport  
Quaint Key West Airport
Landing at Key West

     So if you are going to visit the Keys, it makes sense to start at the bottom - a mere 90 miles from Cuba - work your way north, and then eventually fly home from Miami.

     Key West....It’s a circus of the good kind.

     There’s the joyful sundown craziness with music, jugglers, tightrope walkers, a drummer I think is deaf (really, not a comment on his talent), fresh coconuts filled with nature’s answer to Gatorade, other tasties, sometimes a mermaid charmingly playing her guitar. And of course, the line of cell phone, tablet-sporting folk, arms raised, recording the orange ball of sun slowly, colorfully, slipping below the horizon.

     Beyond that, because there’s so very much to do in Key West, you truly need several days. The best way to cover as much ground as possible is to hop the Old Town Trolley. It makes 13 stops and, with one fee, you can get on and off at its regular pick-up points. 

  Mermaid playing guitar on the dock, Mallory Square   Juggler at Mallory Square  
Mermaid playing guitar on the dock, Mallory Square
One-wheeled juggler at Mallory Square


     What to see? There’s a map that lists 23 tours, museums, theaters. And it doesn’t begin to cover it all. 

     * Hemingway House - It’s not even on that map, yet it’s probably what visitors head for first. It’s a fascinating, thorough trip through Hemingway’s life in Key West, a chance to see his typewriter, the 53 descendants of his six toed cats, not to mention hear about a few of the scandals. The swimming pool cost $20,000 in 1938 dollars, a veritable fortune. And, so the story goes, Hemingway flung down 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 to memorialize the alleged outburst.

     * Mel Fisher Maritime Museum - actual Spanish galleon gold treasures found by treasure hunter Mel Fisher, details of the hunt, the discoveries, the slave trade and piracy. See REAL gold finds.

       * Kayaking at night with Ibis Bay Paddle Sports. Leave from behind The Stoned Crab cafe (affordable stone crab...yum) and paddle out to a salt pond in these seriously neat kayaks whose entire bottoms are see-through plastic. Light sticks show the shallow underwater world. We saw stingrays, conch shells, sea stars, a couple of Florida lobsters and, yes, a baby shark! Our wonderfully enthusiastic guide, Riane, netted urchins, sea cucumbers and more for us to see up close.   Kayaking in Ibis Bay, Key West  

     * Listen to an explanation of coral reef restoration by Dr. Dave Vaughan of Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park beach. They 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,” Dr. Dave said.

     You can snorkel out (gear is available for rent) and watch them drill and cement. And nearby is a natural reef in five feet of water TEEMING with tropical fish...thousands of tiny silversides swam in undulating curtains that folded upon me as I finned into them. And there were larger fish...snook, tarpon, chubs, snapper, parrotfish. All within a hundred yards of shore.

     FOOD - Yes wonderful yummies. But perhaps my fav in Key West was the century old Blue Heaven in the historic Bahama Village neighborhood, with tables outdoors among huge banyan trees and old Key West bungalows. We had breakfast...Keys shrimp on grits, lobster BLT, lobster Benedict and, yes, at 8am, a slice of authentic Key lime pie. The place has a rocking night scene with bands and a full bar. Through the decades it’s hosted cock fighting, gambling and boxing matches that were, in his time, refereed by Hemingway.

  Florida Keys sunrise   Florida Keys sunset  
Florida Keys sunrise
Florida keys sunset

     But enough of the end of the US island chain.

     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 (SUP) with Sarah L. Sullivan of Serenity Eco Therapy. Yes, this was seriously cool. No, I don’t have the balance of a leaf in the wind.

Stand up paddleboard yoga, Florida Keys
Stand up paddleboard yoga at the beach

       Another point to remember...the Keys really don’t have many decent beaches because of the topography (hard coral rock). Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key is not only good, it’s ranked among the top ten beaches in the US.

     Next up, the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. They even have an ambulance. They pick up injured turtles, nurse them back to health and release them back into the ocean if possible. Our visit included a slide show explaining the turtles...among them, loggerheads that can chomp through a conch shell and leatherbacks that can be six feet long, weigh 2,000 pounds and eat 85 percent of their body weight in jellyfish in one day. 

Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Key West
Turtle Hospital in Marathon

     You get to see the operating room and tanks with injured turtles, many of whom have weights glued to their shells because they developed air bubbles from injuries and can’t dive unaided for food. A tip: this was mid summer and there were at least 40 people on our tour. Make reservations in advance!

     One advantage of visiting the Keys in summer is the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival, now in its third decade. While at least 100 boats floated above us, those of us who had scuba certification got to dive among the reefs of Looe Key and watch the underwater mermaids pretend to play underwater instruments. All this while a water-themed playlist pumped songs from The Little Mermaid, the Beatles (Yellow Submarine), the Gilligan’s Island theme and much more into the ocean. It was like swimming through a fog of sound while the show was being picked up via radio broadcast in China, among other unlikely places.

  Mermaid aat Florida Keys Underwater Music Festival   Nicole Pacha, left, and Sarah Brunner pretend to play instruments sculpted by a local artist at the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival Saturday, July 9, 2016, in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Big Pine Key, Fla. Pacha and Brunner were among hundreds of divers and snorkelers who submerged to listen to a local radio station's four-hour broadcast piped beneath the sea at Looe Key Reef. Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau  

     “Everybody knows the upper keys but we were somewhat forgotten. It was a way to publicize the Lower Keys,” explained festival organizer Bill Becker who started this whole festival thing in 1985.


     Okay, now we get to Robbie’s on Islamorada, a fun fest of the typical Keys kind.

     Robbie’s 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 picturesquely perched 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. Venture out on a four hour fishing tour that is squarely aimed at visitors who are not necessarily diehard fishermen but want a show. Stand at the rail with a light test line and two hooks holding fresh bait. The idea is to troll across the bottom, wait for the line to bob, then reel it up fast, and hope there’s a delicious snapper at the other end.

       Back at the dock, a clever marking system on each fish keeps everyone’s catch identified. A couple of crewmen then toss snapper, grunts and whatnot into each person’s bucket.

  Catching fish off Islamorada, Key West  

     Then it’s time to filet the fish (better them than you) and you take a bag of filets to the cafe where it’s cooked and served with fries and slaw. Our snapper was absolutely mouth watering...tender, flaky, moist, flavorful. OMG. To be honest, no other fish, even in top end restaurants during our trip, approached the quality of what we ate sitting around a picnic table that day.

     But one place came close...Chef Michael’s in Islamorada. There, I had unquestionably the best lobster of the trip. It was prepared as tempura, with a crispy batter and meat inside so tender, it virtually melted on my tongue. There was also the fish ceviche served in a coconut that, itself, was the milky way fresh coconut should taste but so rarely does. The ceviche was crammed with shrimp, lobster, lime and orange juice, coconut milk, onion, cilantro plus jalapenos to give it a kick.




Florida Keys lobster dinner

  Hogfish with teeth in a restaurant  
  In Florida you eat the lobster tail, not the claws   Florida Keys hogfish with teeth at a restaurant  

     Then came the hogfish, an uuuugly creature if there ever was one, sitting on a plate with its dorsal fin erect and an upper jaw of toothpick teeth hanging in the air. I think there was actual fish flesh in there somewhere but I couldn’t get past the teeth, which made for a great photo opportunity. Those who ate it, loved it.

  Tiki Jet  

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

      The vest is easier for a beginner to master. 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, if somewhat water-up-the-nose, 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. The guides are a treasure trove of information. And we wound up our trip at Sundowners, a cafe on Key Largo. Great views, great fishy appetizers. Do NOT miss the mango coconut mojito.

  Glass bottom boat   See-through bottom kayak  
  Children enjoy glass bottom boat at John Pennekamp Park
  See through bottom kayak in Ibis Bay

     The best time to visit the Florida keys is late fall through late spring, when the air is cooler and drier. There is still plenty to do in summer, though, especially the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival in July with music piped in underwater. There no longer seems to be an off season.

     A word about mosquitoes. Fresh tropical breezes and a vigorous anti mosquito program kept most mosquitoes at bay during my trip. The Florida Department of Health website updates daily and when I visited in mid July, they had not ever had a case of Zika in Monroe County, which includes the southern edge of mainland Florida and the Keys.

     Among the interesting places to stay are those of Historic Key West Inns. These are boutique hotels created from original local homes. They are cozy, with just a few dozen rooms, modernized and located in Key West’s Old Town near restaurants and Duval Street.

The Florida Keys - http://www.fla-keys.com/  
Historic Key West Inns - http://www.historickeywestinns.com/  
The Stoned Crab - http://www.stonedcrabkeywest.com/#the-stoned-crab  
Ibis Bay Paddle Sports - http://www.keywestpaddle.com/  
Blue Heaven - http://www.blueheavenkw.com/     
Hemingway House - http://www.hemingwayhome.com/   
Coral restoration with Mote Marine Tropical Research Laboratory -  https://mote.org/locations/details/tropical-research-laboratory        
Serenity Eco Therapy - http://www.serenityecoguides.com/   
Turtle Hospital -  http://www.turtlehospital.org/  
Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival -  http://www.lowerkeyschamber.com/festival.php  
Robbie’s Marina (Hook & Cook) - http://www.robbies.com/  
Hungry Tarpon Restaurant - http://www.hungrytarpon.com/   
PHOTO DIARY - https://goo.gl/photos/74ioTu1WWkVk5Pt27

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