FL - Key West - America's Cul de Sac

Visit Key West Key West, FL - When it's 35 degrees at home and winter has become the root cause of your psychosis, the thought of a few days riding in the warm wind holds the promise of a cure. When 'Anywhere South' is the preferred direction, the Florida Keys offer the strongest possible medicine for the sun deprived. We got here during the first week of April, right after the spring break crowd left - oh, it was great to be able to sweat for a few days.

First, let's set the record straight about motorcycles down here. The roads are flat. I don't mean the terrain has only a few hills here and there. It's the kind of flat where the only elevation gain above sea level is when you are crossing a bridge between two little islands. But, there are so many bridges in the 130 miles of the Overseas Highway that it doesn't seem to matter there are no hills.

The Yankees Have Escaped ...
and they like it!
Curves? Sure, there are lots of curves. The gentle kind built into the road by highway engineers looking for the most stable way to connect one of those bridges to the widest parts of the next little island. Generally the route, US-1, is all two lane highway and the speed limit is just 45 MPH for most of the way. It's heavily patrolled by police and the locals don't seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere.

The number of traffic deaths on this stretch of road leading to Mile 0 is high. Everybody is kept aware of the tally by big yellow signs at the edge of the road. During our stay the count was either 9 or 10, depending upon your direction of travel. I don't know if that means the northbound rescue crew can't count properly or the Southbounders worked an extra shift. I suspect the cause of many of these fatal accidents is that we visitors are not accustomed to the pace of the keys, and we tend to go much faster than the locals.

The pace really is slower here. "This is the Keys - Get used to it," is an aggravating phrase often tossed about by the residents of the Conch Republic. It's their way of saying they accept the crowds, generally slow service, high prices and quirky attitudes as the rock on the other end of a long fulcrum. This is as close to a tropical paradise that we have in the USA and they aren't gonna rock the boat just to get a burger within 90 seconds of placing the order. There is a high degree of tolerance for one another here, which is a good thing, but it can be aggravating. At times, other than the depth of winter, it gets pretty hot here. Chasing some offensive little twerp down the street at a full run is hard on the heart, so the minor aggravations fade pretty easily.

Once in the downtown area the presence of law enforcement officials seems minimal. I'm sure they are there in force, but they are just very good at keeping a low profile. Finding a parking spot is a nightmare unless you want to use a commercial lot. Bring a fistful of quarters if you want to use a meter at the curb. This is a plus for us aboard the two wheeled conveyances. There are thousands of little scooters in town and they all seem to park against the curb in designated areas for free. I saw a few motorcycles squeezed into these spots and nobody seemed to care. If your favorite grown up scooter gets towed away on your visit, remember, I didn't specifically ASK the cops if it was okay to be there.

The best known tourist areas of Key West all center on Duval and Front streets. Sloppy Joe's isn't the only bar in town - it's possible to start at one end of Duval Street and take all day to work your way to the other end, just one drink at a time. It's called the Pub Crawl and there is some unofficial prize for making all the stops. It might be that a local offers to hold you head while you puke, but I'd think it's probably much more practical to just sample a couple of stops a day.

My first visit to Key West was over 40 years ago and I came like the ancient mariners, aboard a ship. It was an atypical introduction to the area. The bars were all here of course, but most of the tourist shops were not. It was a sleepy little town in which ex-American Presidents and barflies could mix without much ado. Then a revolution of some sort took place and the tourist dollar became a controlling influence.

Whatever your tastes, and I DO mean whatever - a diversion that satisfies can be found here at a price. Leather? Yes, we have leather. Pirates and treasure? Yes, we have pirates and treasure. Soul singers and bee bop? Yes, we have something like a soul singer and bee bop - try that place two corners down the street, the one that with the sign for `Soul Singer' tacked on the wall.

Eclectic Collections Abound -
at Fort Martelo
Lighthouse Museum
& Customs House Museum
Learning the history of a town before wading into the depths of local culture makes every visit more enjoyable. As a result I'm usually found in, or around, museums during a stay of any length. During this stay I had arranged with the good folks at the Key West Arts and Historical Society to visit all three of their venues; The Lighthouse & Keepers Quarters Museum, the Museum of Art & History at the Custom House, and Fort East Martello & Gardens.

Each location has a fascinating history dating back to the early days of Key West. The lighthouse structure was constructed in 1847 and expanded in 1894. The view from the top of the light is a spectacular splash of green and blue as far as the eye can see. The palm fronds lay before your feet like a carpet at the edge of a brilliant green sea, and the deep blue sky is accented with billowing white clouds. The purpose of the light is to keep mariners off the shoals in frequent storms. It's just too beautiful here to even think of storms.

The lighthouse keeper's quarters are very Spartan. Several artifacts on display evoke the romance of being a keeper, but because this was never an isolated light it doesn't fully bring the visitor into the hardships most keepers endured. Those responsible for keeping the beacons lit had a difficult job, especially when the light was on a remote island or distant reef. Key West is distant, but it's far from remote.

The Customs House is a bird of another color. The building itself is an architectural throwback to the days when Federal structures were built to strict standards that didn't easily accommodate Southern climates. When the old place was taken over by KWAHS it took nine million dollars to renovate, much of that used to make it cool for visitors.

Regardless of the temperature, Customs House is a cool place. Rotating art exhibits are tastefully combined with local history rooms to offer the guests some whimsy with their history. One room is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway, another of those transplanted Yankees that found the Keys irresistible. His life was the perfect definition of eclectic. Hemingway was a big game hunter, adventurer, warrior, social rascal, and writer of novels that explored the passion and depth of human existence. His home is nearby and although we didn't visit, it's a stop I'd recommend to anyone.

Our third museum stop was out past the public beach area, next to the airport. East Fort Martello was supposed to be a bastion of defense against the Confederacy. Like most things in the Keys, it just didn't work out that way. Key West remained a Union occupied city throughout the Civil War, but completing the fort wasn't a priority. Munitions engineers developed explosive shells early in the conflict and the brickwork of East Fort Martello couldn't withstand that sort of pounding if ever attacked. The project was slowed, and eventually stopped altogether.

The fort served the nation even into World War II. It was used for classroom areas, training aviators that were stationed at the adjacent airfield and at NAAF Boca Chica. The thick walls of the fort made it a comfortable study environment, and also as a museum today. Exhibits range from funeral coaches to wild pieces of art fashioned from junk cars. Photos of presidential visits are mounted aside newspaper clippings about the Spanish American War, and from the top of the fort you can watch planes land and take off from Walker Field.

Off to visit the beaches! The public areas are well developed, with lots of sand and warm water rolling onto the beach.

ParaSailing -
Looks fun for the strong
Ah, wait - is it possible to PLAN a beach? NO! But this beach does stretch for about two miles and is generally packed, especially at the southern end. Parking can be a problem at times. Bikers should be able to get around the problem by grouping together in one spot. Bring the sun screen and sun glasses - and, of course, a laid back attitude. Being in a rush on the beach isn't tolerated by the locals.

There are a few diversions that you must try. Having a few cold ones on the warm sand comes to mind, and I found some other Yankees from Traverse City, Michigan, doing just that. It didn't seem to bother them at all that most of Michigan was under a thick blanket of snow and ice. Here in Key West the sun was warm and the sea as bright as their happy smiles. In fact, you won't see many dour faces here in the Keys.

I took a few shots of para-sailors pulling themselves across the wave tops on a board. I'm pretty sure I don't have the upper body strength to do this. The riders are frequently launched from the top of the waves into the air, as much as ten feet. I would be the guy dragged through the waves, forgetting to let go of the sail until realizing my swim trunks had departed when I went airborne. My feebly slow reactions would take hold at the very moment I reached the apex of that 10 foot flight into the sky, thus dropping me several feet into the salt water. Yup, I want to try this someday, but only when there aren't a thousand young folks laughing at the white haired fool shouting, `Why am I doing this?'

There are lots of places to eat in Key West, some pricey and some not. You can find food cooked in Caribbean style, Latin, fast food, BBQ, and lots of places to eat where the island breezes waft across your plate as you look out to the ocean.

We looked for someplace nice that didn't have a banker frisking patrons at the door and

Guy Harvey's Island Grill -
Nice place to eat
found Guy Harvey's Island Grill at 511 Greene Street, just a block or two away from Sloppy Joe's. The atmosphere was great and the food excellent. The menu has the obligatory seafood plus beef and chicken if you want to explore it in different ways. I had some chicken with some `mild' sauce. Wow. I wonder what the really hot stuff is like. The menu prices were not budget busters and the management was really friendly.

We camped during our stay in the keys, at Big Pine Key, about 30 miles north of Key West.

Keys camping -
it's a budget thing
Tent campers in the Keys will find rates vary from $35 nightly for the two state campgrounds to about $55 nightly at the commercial campgrounds. If you plan on camping be aware that fresh water isn't scarce, but it is precious. The quality of shower facilities can vary and conservation is encouraged. High winds come up quickly and you must ensure your campsite is secure. Snakes are common and varied, be careful when putting your hand into places where a snake might like to curl up. Most people can't tell the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes, so it's best to avoid them all.

Yes, a two wheel ride to the Florida Keys is the cure for the winter blues. Summer trips? Sure, it's less crowded, less expensive - but much hotter. It can be sticky and the afternoon thunderstorm is always a welcome event. Ribbons of steam rise from the streets and sidewalks when the showers end you feel as if you are in a Hollywood special effects scene.

One last mention of cash is warranted. It's safer to bring a credit card. Budget travel is possible in the Keys, but planning is necessary. Anyone that just shows up down here is likely to pay premium rates for everything. Another key is to have a local guide . . . I realized after the fact that one of our new friends at KWAHS is an avid rider (a nice Triumph Bonneville). Getting a steer off to the places frequented by the locals would have been easy and much less expensive, something that my new friend earnestly pointed out.

Couples should budget about $400 daily if you want a decent hotel room and desire to explore all of the tourist venues. Attraction tickets can run from $10 to $25 each and an excursion boat tour or seaplane ride can start at $100 each. When you compare these prices to a day at Disney World it doesn't seem that bad.

It's possible to fly into Miami and rent a motorcycle for a day or a week. Book well in advance and make sure you fully understand the rental agreement and insurance requirements.

Are the Florida Keys a Worthwhile trip? YES! Will you return? Probably. There's just so much to see and do that a quick couple of days isn't enough. Your second visit will likely be one that allows you time enough to wander about the upper keys, looking for those super secluded beaches. Enjoy your stay, I know I did.

last visit - April 2008