It’s business; not personal – but at least it’s cleaned up

I wonder if disappointment is indirectly proportional to expectation or if, as is more likely, I’ve simply become less easy to please with time and experience. When we first made the drive down to the Keys my expectations weren’t high. Plans to be in Manila the previous week had foundered for a variety of reasons and, back in those heady days of believing in indispensability and a life spent commuting, our busy schedules said ‘away from the office’ and that’s where we had to be. So Florida it was and I’d travelled under mild protest, having been seduced with stories of diving pelicans and warm breezes after Mission Control had attended a conference on Duck Key earlier in the year. Against all my inclinations I’d rented a convertible, dug out my old Nautica baseball cap and headed west.

My previous experience of the States had been limited to [and by, if I’m honest] a few scattered business trips and longer periods in San Francisco and Minneapolis. I wasn’t enamoured with things American and, at that time, the British Foreign Office was advising tourists to Florida to exercise ‘caution’ following the recent killing of a German tourist in a State described alarmingly as a ‘Deathtrap under the palms’. There had been a free-for-all in the British press over the statistics for crimes against tourists in Florida with 35000 being cited as the annual figure. That the trend was diminishing year-on-year and around 80% of the reported figure represented non-violent crime such as surreptitiously adding a gratuity to a restaurant bill was, unsurprisingly, not mentioned for fear of spoiling a good story with the facts. Nonetheless, there was a feeling amongst British tourists that to make a visit to Florida was to take your life into your hands.

A few days in South Beach and immersion in the wonders of art deco quickly dispelled any worries about roaming gangs of armed youths and the possibility of being carjacked. In the furore over tourists being the principal target of criminals Florida had passed legislation that prevented car rental companies from applying banners, signage or advertising to rented vehicles so that the convertible, at least, didn’t stand out; I couldn’t make the same claim of the image I cut, staring at a map, camera around my neck and blindingly white knees.

I have only fleeting memories of that first drive down; all the bridges; the colour of the sea and pelicans racing the car; prisoner chain gangs working on the highway; buildings in need of paint and, so unlike Miami, old cars that were dusty and unpolished. A lot of guys had long hair. It was sunset as we collected the key at a little fishing camp cum motel called Parmer’s Place, which was quaint and a little scruffy, but right on the waterfront thirty minutes from Key West. It comprised a group of less-than-salubrious cabins scattered amongst unkempt vegetation. There was a small pool and boat docks and it had been used primarily by guys who wanted to fish, drink a few beers and fish some more so even if it wasn’t luxurious it was fairly clean and comfortable and it did just fine. For reasons now lost in the mists of time we were allocated temporarily for the first night with an assurance we’d be moved to the room we had booked next day so it was a matter of checking-in, getting a quick shower and then out for refreshments. The room we were allocated was nothing less then startling; perhaps the smallest I’ve ever rented with no wardrobe, no storage and a bed, when it folded down from the wall, that took up half the floor space. Apparently such a contraption is called a ‘Murphy bed’ and we’ve had a few giggles about it since when reminiscing over that first night. I’d not encountered one before but had watched Charlie Chaplin’s battle and seen numerous people crushed or swallowed by them in American movies. I don’t recall how we slept but guess we managed to get through the night unscathed.

At the turn off US1 we’d seen the lights of a place on the water that was within walking distance of our fold-down bed, just along Berry Avenue. It was called The Sandbar. We set off for it down the unlit road with stars across a cloudless sky and racoons rustling around the trash cans. The timber-clad accommodation was at first floor, in a style typical of the Keys. A wide staircase at the front opened into a huge space filled with blues music – all timber columns, beams and boarding. Around the walls large, top-hinged windows opened out onto the water and let in the tropical air. But it’s most endearing feature – parked in the centre and arranged so that you couldn’t avoid a friendly ‘Hi’ to the other occupants – was a long, oval bar. We were almost immediately in conversation with people who lived locally and fished for a living and that never changed. The atmosphere was natural, welcoming and just cool. When I ordered a big, cold beer from one of the two girls tending the bar I was taken literally and presented with a chilled 25oz can, which is about the equivalent of a bottle of wine. Oh, and something that appeared to go unnoticed by the ponytails in the bar but which will stay with me forever; the girls were serving in tiny shorts and roller skates. My hesitation about spending time in Florida had evaporated and a long affection for the Florida Keys began.

I spent a lot of time over many years watching the sun go down from the Sandbar after that, usually listening to good music and always in excellent company. The food was simple and good – grilled fresh fish, coconut shrimp or burgers – and the beer ice-cold. It never lost its ambience but became something of a barometer for the inexorable changes taking place in the Keys. A memorable fishing trip on the reef with the owner and a good man, Banks Prevatt, proved to be the Sandbar’s swan-song for me as he was approached shortly after by a well-meaning guy from Ohio who made him an offer that he couldn’t turn down. So the Sandbar is now called Parrotdise – yes, I know – and you can still get a burger there, but the wooden columns are painted in ‘tropical’ colours and that wonderful bar has gone, to make room for gaily-decorated tables. In place of the girls – the roller skates were a one-time event – polite servers help you work through a menu that offers raspberry and peppered goat cheese salad, chimichurri skirt steak or chocolate pot de crème. The following year one of the nice ladies in reception at Parmer’s Place – she was from New York and didn’t know that we’d stayed there several times previously, by the way – was surprised at the hint of regret in my voice when we spoke of the Sandbar’s demise. ‘Well, it needed cleaning up’, she whispered conspiratorially with a glance at her colleague as she slid a print of the Parrotdise fine dining menu across the counter.

By then Parmer’s Place had a new owner as well and had been nonsensically re-branded as ‘Parmer’s Resort’. That, too, was being ‘cleaned up’. A concerted effort to eradicate ‘bugs’ had resulted in the removal of vegetation and the earthiness that was very much the essence of the old place was being sanitised. Mangroves were either manicured or removed completely and planting disappeared, along with the geckos and a significant layer of the local ecosystem. Old Mr and Mrs Parmer used to sit in the corner of the breakfast room smoking and watching Good Morning America but now the new owner cruises his sterile compound between the repainted and re-roofed cabins on a Harley-Davidson. This feels like it’s aimed at discouraging interaction, which is insensitive and less than convivial. It is cleaner than it used to be but, to be brutally honest, it really hasn’t been improved and a coat of paint and new furniture hasn’t justified the increased cost of staying there. The soul has gone and I think the ghosts of the past have departed to keep up with the news somewhere else.

Regardless, Parmer’s Resort has an unbeatable location and people still enjoy the ‘authenticity’ of the place with its ‘old Florida charm’. I can understand that to some extent as many of the folk we’ve met on recent visits find the place as enchanting as we did when we first experienced it, but then, they don’t have the comparison to make. One guy said that he found Parmer’s Resort so relaxing because it was ‘bug free’. It had never occurred to me to consider a lack of ‘bugs’ in the tropics as part of a rating system, but I guess we all want something different for our buck.

When I speak to people here they are frequently nostalgic about the ‘old Keys’ and you’ll see it highlighted in real estate ads or on restaurant reviews but I’m not sure I quite get what that means. After all, there were no utilities here until the 1950s and summer residence was all but impossible until mosquitoes were controlled. That simple statement by a lady from New York sums up exactly how things have changed in the Keys; they’ve been cleaned up. I still like the Florida Keys; I like them a lot but perhaps they appeal to a less circumspect type of visitor now.

I haven’t seen much of the racoons for a while and I miss the little critters.

 

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It’s business; not personal

When visiting a place often and over a number of years you might take comfort in the familiarity and so it is with me and the Florida Keys. I’ve enjoyed visiting the Keys for the better part of twenty years now. That being said, a week or so at a time is enough for me but it’s pleasant returning to the same place and easing seamlessly into the tropical, laid-back atmosphere. We have a favourite bar and know where to get the best coconut shrimp; we know where the coolest music is and who makes the most delicious Key Lime pie. I have a little circuit of local birding hotspots that keep me out of trouble until the bars open and knowing where to shop and which room to stay in takes a lot of the sting out of travelling to the southernmost tip of Florida. All this goes to avoid those little surprises that can take the gloss off an otherwise relaxing trip.

We’ve stayed in the same little place in the Lower Keys – nearer Havana than Miami – for the time we’ve been visiting so Mission Control calls as we are making the reservation, just to let them know we’re on our way again and to see that we can have the room we prefer to stay in. She calls them again a few days before we arrive to make certain that it’s all on track, so to speak; you know, to avoid those little surprises. I guess there might be three or four such conversations between our organising the trip and arriving here.

The drive down US1 from Miami– the overseas highway – has to be one of the best drives in the world and is very much a part of the experience of visiting the Keys. As we hop from island to island over pale turquoise water with the car roof down, US1 Keys Radio turned up and the sun on our faces the essence of the place generates a magnificent backdrop; distant mangrove-covered islands; dive camps and marinas; wooden houses and waterside condos shaded by palm trees; shops or restaurants that haven’t changed – or been repainted – in years; familiar advertising signs; eye-level pelicans keeping pace with the car as you cross each bridge. Knowing the place well is part of the experience and the drive can take anything between two and four hours, depending on the number of distractions, before we arrive to collect the key. And, not for the first time, that’s where we experience one of those little surprises as our hosts have no idea – none whatsoever – who we are. Not only that but they also don’t know that we’ve been here before and, in a repeated scenario that always engenders absolute disbelief on my part, they are surprised to hear that we have come all the way from Europe. The girls in reception – many of whom we’ve spoken to and some we’ve actually met before – are charming and helpful but can’t quite get around recognising returning guests. So, despite the telephone conversations, our having travelled from another continent and all those previous visits I find myself wanting to remind them once again that ‘we’ve been here before’ only to immediately feel like a benign geriatric reminding his frequent visitor that ‘I’m eighty-three, you know’. One of the expressions frequently heard in the Keys is ‘change latitude, change attitude’ but I’ve never quite been able to determine whether it means on the one hand, relax when you’re in the Keys or, on the other, prepare yourself for things being so casual that they just about fall over. It probably means both. Perhaps remembering someone from one year to the next is, well, simply too much trouble. Perhaps it’s the casual attitude associated with growing a ponytail, wearing a cap and cut-off shorts and living out your days in a sponsored give-away tee-shirt from an event at the Boondocks.

As you’d expect, things have changed in the years we’ve been staying here and that very relaxed existence appears to be disappearing. On an early visit we picked up a paperback that told how to ‘Quit your job and move to Key West. It was written in a tongue-in-cheek style but provided serious advice as a survivor’s guide for dropping out of the race and taking up a life that might have meant fishing and playing guitar or fixing boat engines and growing that ponytail. It’s still available and still relevant and when I first read the book it really did seem possible that you could do it. After all, there were plenty of trailer homes around; house construction and maintenance, away from the prestigious water-front locations at least, was something of an occasional pastime and nobody bothered you too much if you kept your head down. You could get by if you just wanted to lay back and not demand too much of life. Down here, the sun shines all-year-round and the beer is always cold so it’s easy to see why island life – a much-used euphemism for adopting a less-than-formal approach to just about anything – seduced many who day-dreamed of an existence less structured and less stressful than most of us lead. The Keys have been a good place to run away to and that’s clearly what people did, but in all the years I’ve been visiting I’ve never met a single person who actually originated here; not one. Do Keys kids grow up and get the heck off the islands?

Now development controls, a relatively high cost of living, an influx of investment from further north, astronomical insurance rates after a succession of hurricanes and increasing numbers of tourists from cruise ships in Key West conspire to turn the barometer away from a life of ‘fishin’ an’ pickin’. Property values have soared [house values doubled in the three years to 2004] and, despite the downturn after 2008, remain relatively high if you live locally but are still pretty reasonable if you come from New York. Casual bars are being replaced with ‘venues’; local shops with tee-shirt outlets and, in a place where the fish is superb, some restaurants now import it.

Of all the Keys, Big Pine and Marathon most retain the character and ambience of that relaxed, easy-going lifestyle. Big Pine is largely residential with a population of around 5000 but isn’t doing well commercially whereas on Marathon, where there are most commercial fishermen, the population is in gradual decline. Even so, real estate sales on both have lost little momentum and fishing charters, at over $500 a day, are fully-booked through to May. It looks as though escapees are being replaced by second home-owners.

As a visitor Key West is a unique and exciting place to visit with a population of around 24500 that has remained static since 1982, when the island seceded from the USA to declare independence of The Conch Republic. Unless you get off the beaten track, however, these days you are rubbing shoulders almost exclusively with tourists, revellers or, at this time of year, pubescent Spring Breakers. Last week we struggled to count locals amongst the teens and 12000 or so tourists from the three cruise ships in port. [Cruise ships brought nearly 812000 tourists to Key West in 2011] Duval Street, a centre of genuine eccentricity and insouciance when we first crawled it, still has character but now seems less like the main drag through a unique island community and more like a tourist mall. There are still pony-tails but they are fewer; there are still guys who fix boat engines and play guitar but, as in the rest of the Keys, they are peripheral in a world that depends increasingly on the hospitality and tourism sectors, which feel overwhelming.

We’ll continue to visit the Keys, but perhaps not as often as we’ve done. The qualities that made me feel genuinely welcome in a relaxed community at ease with itself are slip-sliding away and, when I arrive now, I’m not a returning visitor but just another tourist. Time was when you could haul up at the Sandbar and easily fall into conversation with a guy about how the fishing had been that day. It was the normal thing to do. The Sandbar is gone now; the restaurant that replaced it sells fine island dining on chintz tablecloths, which is OK but just not the same. The guys who fish have gone too and people working on commission to sell a meal, hustle a boat tour or peddle a tee-shirt don’t have time to share a beer with a guy who just wants to hear a story. In truth, I suspect they don’t have a story to tell anyway.

The photographs of Bahia Honda Key, the best beach in the Keys, are used with kind permission of Mission Control.