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.