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.