When you are ready to turn off the stress of everyday pressures and face the sweetness of a calm Atlantic coastline, then it is time to take a journey down to the Florida Keys and Key West situated at the tip of the North American continent.
What To See:
Key Largo is the largest of the Florida Keys. Named Cayo Largo (meaning ‘long island’) by Spanish explorers, it brings to mind that legendary 1948 movie with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson. This ideal place is perfect for the movie industry and films such as ‘On Golden Pond’ and ‘The African Queen’ brought fame, if not fortune, to this area. There are all types of accommodation available, from small bed and breakfasts to the more luxurious hotels. Sheraton Beach Resort offers many facilities-- private beach, two pools, water sports of every kind, fishing, gourmet seafood and casual dining, all in one refreshing resort. It is surrounded by lush tropical acres of environmentally protected hardwood hammocks, and the backdoor to the mystical Florida Everglades.
John Pennekamp’s ‘Coral Reef State Park’ has its home in Key Largo, and you can enjoy many exciting experiences, sailing, snorkeling or taking glass bottom boat tours. Through the veritable wonderland of the Florida Reef Tract, you can explore gorgeous corals beneath the sea which, over the years, have formed amazing architecture-- pillars, caverns, ledges, spires, shapes that inspire even the most vivid imagination. In this soundless world with only brightly-colored fish as your companions, waving fronds of ferns, willowy trees and other tropical vegetation seem to beckon you. Be sure to watch out for sharks!
Crossing the Snake Creek drawbridge brings you to Islamorada, otherwise known as the Purple Isles. Made up of two islands connected by a land bridge and called Windley Key after an early settler, this area is famous or its ‘Theater of the Sea’ where you will find many sea creatures: seals, rays, turtles, sharks, sea lions and it is one of the places where you can swim with the dolphins. Islamorada also claims to be the ‘Sport Fishing Capital of the World’, and the many marinas with the outriggers and tuna towers of sport fishing fleets do not belie this claim. Seas filled with tarpon, bonefish, grouper and redfish attract anglers from all over the world.
The next delightful port of call on this odyssey is Hawk’s Cay Resort and Marina. A 60-acre island in the heart of the Florida Keys is home to this luxurious, tropical-style resort. With its own full-service marina, yacht basin and saltwater lagoon, Hawk’s Cay Resort offers a casual lifestyle to those who love luxury in a relaxed atmosphere. The low slung, rambling West Indies style hotel is beautifully furnished with wicker and elegant antiques amidst landscaped gardens filled with brightly colored flowers and verdant foliage. Other notable features at Hawk’s Cay are the eight-court tennis garden lit for night play, fresh water swimming pool, nearby golf course, fitness trail, two whirlpool spas and a nightclub. Attracting such celebrities as Raquel Welch, Joanna Woodward and Paul Newman who enjoy the comfortable climate of an average 82 degrees in summer and 72 degrees average in winter. Even Lyndon Johnson laid his presidential head on a pillow in one of the suites here.
Life-long guests at Hawk’s Cay are the bottlenose dolphins. The Chicago Zoological Society together with Hawk’s Cay Resort operate the ‘Dolphin Connection’ designed to manage a healthy breeding population of Atlantic dolphins, and promoting the study of dolphin biology and interest the public in forming an appreciation for the beauty and natural wonders of marine life and ecology in the Florida Keys.
After a delicious breakfast at Hawk’s Cay Resort, we set out along the busy causeway passing through the bustling metropolis of Marathon where many exciting events and festivals take place throughout the year. Trailer parks and campgrounds furnish comfortable venues for those who like to take their homes along with them, and the soft, velvety nights and relaxing sun filled days are a wonderful backdrop for locals and visitors alike. Grassy Key, Fat Deer Key and Vaca Key are areas where residential communities are flourishing. The Lower Keys with such fascinating names as Summerland and Big Torch are gated by the brilliant Gulf of Mexico.
We drove on through Cudjae Key, Saddlebunch, Boca Chica and Big Coppit (sounds a bit like the Hobbits’ Middle Earth) always sided by the cool blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. These islands have a foundation of fossil coral layered with oolite that are egg-shaped limestone granules, and their vegetation and wildlife population, coupled with areas of unspoiled wilderness, make them a joy to explore.
And so on to Key West, our destination point for the next few days. We drove through shady lanes lined what look like the ante-bellum houses of New Orleans. Lacy verandahs, columns of white stone, green foliage covered walls and windows, and an air of mystery surrounding many of them. However, I had not yet been faced with the raucous milieu of the main thoroughfare that, by day and night, is a hurly gurly of sight, sound and smell.
Key West was the home of Ernest Hemingway, one of the great American writers and Nobel Prize winner. His spacious mansion is open to be explored, as are many historic hideaways. I spent quite a few hours wandering up and down the side streets of this island enjoying the truly beautiful houses and gardens, many of which have been turned into hotels, and bed and breakfast places. One place I recommend is the Curry Mansion Inn built in 1899. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and a Restoration Award-Winner.
Key West is the gateway to one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, and during World War 1 it became a strategic post for Army and Naval forces. This was re-activated during World War 11 and after the war remained a major military base, playing an important part in national defense during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Now this fascinating island has become a mecca for tourists and for those who wish to live away from mainland USA. Largely influenced by early Bahamian settlers, the Key’s architecture takes on its own charm. Built to withstand the hot sun, heavy rains, hurricanes and not unusual tornadoes, most houses are built on wood posts or coral rock piers to protect them from high tides and storm waters. There are over 3,000 houses in the historic Key West district built prior to the turn of the century in a style termed Classic Revival, loosely based on Greek and Roman temple form. The simple rectangular plan, gabled roof, columned porch and symmetrical façade with second level windows tucked underneath the porch roof overhang make these houses very charming, while the wooden architectural trim and porch railings, now called gingerbread, add a very special touch.
One of the most charming havens in this historic town is the Pier House Resort. Located at One Duval Street at the southern most tip of the island, this rambling handsome building with its own white sand private beach caters to jet setters from all over the world-- and for good reason. The almost sensual air of lazy abandonment immediately touches to you as you enter the lobby. The softly, swirling ceiling fans, tropical colors in guest and main rooms, fine wicker furniture and the sweet scent of tropical flowers only add to the pleasure of this lovely resort. From morning to night, from breakfast to dinner, The Resort caters to every whim, every taste
There are five bars to choose from including the legendary Chart Room and intimate Wine Galley. DJ’s Raw Bar offers tropical tastes, the Harbor View Café serves casual Caribbean fare and you can enjoy stone crabs which Key West is famous for, as well Conch (pronounced Konk and refers to the beautiful shells, the seafood or native-born Key Wester, besides Conch houses, Conch food, Conch talk, etc.) The daily catch of dolphin, pan-cooked Florida lobster tail or grilled yellow fin tuna, the fabulously fresh fish of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico with their sharp, clean taste, remind me of the delicious fish available on the other side of the pond in England. Side dishes of black trumpet mushrooms, baby new potatoes, spinach and chanterelle mushrooms add to the enjoyment but the piece de resistance is their Key Lime Pie. It is worth a trip just to try the combination of tart lime dessert piled high with fluffy whipped meringue.
An added bonus is the lovely Caribbean Spa with its oversized and luxuriously appointed guest rooms including baths equipped with either whirlpools or European style steam and sauna. Fireplaces, four-poster beds and private balconies overlooking tropical gardens add to the sheer pleasure of pampering yourself, and being pampered in the Spa. Aromatherapy, light massage with aromatic oils, Swedish massage to sooth sore muscles and minds. Indulgences such as Loofah salt glows, hydrating facials and a variety of island inspired beauty treatments are all available on site. Individual fitness training, special spa menus and state-of-the-art exercise equipment are just some of the treats in store for you at this truly magnificent resort. All year round, Pier House Hotel caters to an ever-growing, ever-returning group of visitors who find this idyllic place the stuff of which dreams are made.
Easily reachable by car from major destination cities such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, you can spend a leisurely few hours driving down one of the most unusual causeways in the world. A series of tiny sub-tropical islands connected by 42 bridges, sometimes no wider than two cars’ width (and only one Hummer or SUV!), with small hedgerows affording a marvelous panorama of endless blue-green waters, the gorgeous clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean with its living coral reefs.
So the journey of a lifetime ends in much delight, but there is always another journey, another year.