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US Island Getaway
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
The slight breeze rustles the palm branches. Basting in the warm sun, about to take another dip in the saltwater lagoon, we heard it. Drifting on the breeze, the distinct sound of steel drums. Something was out of place. The steel drums seemed quite natural. We’d escaped for a few days of sun, sand, sea, and exploration in the Florida Keys. The drums simply added to the Caribbean feel of sunny Duck Key. It was the tune that was out of place. It took us a while before we realized it was Eminem’s "Cleaning Out my Closet." Not something one expects to hear on steel drums. Whose innovation was this?
The chain of islands that makes up the Florida Keys stretches from just south of Miami to Key West–ninety miles north of Havana, Cuba. Driving south from Miami, one enters the Keys via Key Largo–the longest key–bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and Florida Bay and Everglades National Park to the west. The Overseas Highway links Key Largo and Key West over its 126 mile length and 43 bridges. The longest, Seven-mile Bridge spans the distance between Key Vach and Sunshine Key. Its span puts the segmented bridge among the longest in the world. The Florida Keys are divided into five regions: Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, Big Pine Key, and Key West.
Time is of little consequence here. One finds a laid back atmosphere expected more in the Caribbean than the US. Temperature in the keys is moderated by the ocean breezes, with the average daytime temperature in Key West of 81.9 degrees Fahrenheit.
Duck Key, approximately midway down the island chain, is about a two-hour ride south from Miami International Airport. Hawk’s Cay Resort on Duck Key would be our base for exploring the keys. The resort features a 177-room inn and 269 villas, and a plethora of water-based activities, including the Offshore Sailing School. Take a basic one day course and learn some basic maneuvers or take the longer, live-aboard course. The school offers professional, hands-on instruction through courses taught by US Sailing Certified instructors. We took the day course and learned quite a bit in our time aboard the 26' Colgate sailing vessel.
Luxuriate in a couple’s massage after a "hard" day on the water. This sensuous experience is a wonderful way to get the kinks worked out before a wonderful dinner at one of the resort’s restaurants. The resort offers several packages (Spa, Honeymoon, Romantic Rendevous, and family with dive, dolphin, and sailing programs).
Key West has some nice places to eat. Kelly’s Caribbean Bar & Grill "southernmost brewery in the US" offers some excellent lunch sandwich selections. We recommend the blackened fish sandwich. Blue Heaven is the place for an excellent seafood dinner under the stars. There are some fine historical attractions such as Hemingway House and the Harry S. Truman Little White House. The downside is a scruffy, anything-goes feel. Approaching Mallory Square, we saw a guy take a drink and place his plastic cup and the remainder of its contents behind the low concrete wall upon which he was seated. He rose and approached us.
"I’ve been trying to get enough money together to buy a hamburger. Can you help?"
Sorry, but the answer was "No."
Touring Key West via the Conch Train allows one to gain a quick overview of the area’s history and historic structures. Ernest Hemingway is one of Key West’s most noted former residents. Stop by the Hemingway House and Museum on Whitehead Street to see the home where the author lived when he produced some of his most noted works. The Spanish Colonial villa is a registered National Historic Landmark. Though Hemingway only lived in the house from 1931 to 1940, he owned it until his death in 1961. Don’t miss taking your picture at the "Southernmost Point in the US" marker, which is closer to Havana, Cuba than to Miami.
Key West’s Mallory Square hosts an eclectic daily celebration of the sunset. Put on by a wide array of street performers ranging from a Houdini-like performance by a guy in a straight jacket, wrapped in chains, suspended by his feet, he escapes in less than 60 seconds, to a contortionist who fits his torso through a tennis racket, to your average fire-breather. It’s an entertaining show, happens daily, and best of all, it’s free.
Big Pine Key Region represents the natural side of the Keys, with two National Wildlife Refuges. Love Key National Marine Sanctuary protects one of the world’s best diving reefs and the 8,000-acre Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge on Big Pine Key and No Name Key protects the endangered Key deer, a small subspecies of Whitetail deer. The refuge was established in 1957 to protect the remaining herd of only 50 deer. The tiny deer weighs a maximum 80 pounds fully grown. The population on both islands has rebounded and is now estimated to number 600. The diminutive deer can be seen among the islands’ mangroves early in the morning and in the evening as dusk approaches. Guided kayak tours represent one of the most effective ways to explore Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge. Such tours allow ample opportunity for observing many species of wildlife as well a rare glimpse of the skittish Key deer.
There’s variety in the Florida Keys. It all depends upon what the traveler is seeking. There are the elegant, the touristy, and natural sides of the Keys and the difference is palpable. Tasteful elegance sums up the feel of Hawk’s Cay Resort on Duck Key. Key West has a gritty feel, something from the other end of the tourism spectrum, with her cruise ship passenger hordes. Then there’s getting in touch with nature, kayaking Big Pine Key: another mind set altogether.
The innovator on the steel drums? Native Trinidadian, Sir Cedrick Luces who has long been a fixture of Hawk’s Cay Resort. His smooth sound providing the sound track for untold vacations over the years. He has three CDs of his steel-drum music, performing the music of others along with his original compositions.
Soaking up the sun, splashing in the lagoon, jamming to a steel-drum concert–what a way to spend the afternoon. Sir Cedric plays for hours. Relaxation sets in, cares melt away as easily as the steel-drum beat mingles with the rustling palm fronds. We indulge in the soothing sounds, the sun and water–a world away from the daily grind of home.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS