Thursday, February 26, 2015

Key West, Florida: Jimmy Buffet Has Left the Building

The Green Parrot Bar, one of the few remaining old buildings still standing in Key West (photo by Simone Cannon)

It had been 30 years since I last visited Key West, aka briefly as The Conch Republic , Cayo Hueso (Bone Island) and Margaritaville, thanks to the famous song by Jimmy Buffet. The last stop, both literally and figuratively, on the US mainland. Key West was originally used as a residence for the Calusa tribe, then alternately owned by the Spanish and British, until Florida was ceded to the United States in 1819. The island has a colorful past: it has been repeatedly exploited  over the years by pirates, various countries' military forces, Cubans and Bahamians who cut down the trees, hunted turtles and fished and was used as a base by bootleggers during prohibition in the 1930s and South American drug runners from the 1960s to 1980s. During that period, it was also a place of refuge for people with few other options; quite literally, the end of the road. A laid back place with cheap rent, open bars and beautiful sunsets, where you could relax on the beach, forget your troubles and maybe get a fresh start. 

  A couple cycling in front of the Southernmost House, now a boutique hotel, Key West (photo by Simone Cannon)

When I visited in the 90s, new development was slowly building, but you could already see in which direction the island was moving. Although still charming in its own way, the old Key West is gone. With a few exceptions, the rickety bars and Victorian wooden houses have been replaced by Coach and Express stores, slick art galleries and upscale martini bars. The rents have gone through the roof, on average, $2,000-$4,000 for a one bedroom apartment and the renters and owners, semi-understandably, are intolerant of squatters, including RV dry campers. Years ago, you could park your small motorhome, van or car almost anywhere along the side of the road in the keys, but now, the only camping near Key West is the KOA on Sugarloaf Key at a rate of $104 a night, not an option on our tight budget, so we had to drive from and back to Long Key State Park. Parking has always been difficult, but now it is almost impossible to find a space, especially for a motorhome. After driving around for ages, someone finally told us that we could park for free in the empty lot across from the Eco Discovery Center and walk to the town center. 

Willie T's Bar, Key West

There are still vestiges of the Key West that I remember: you can still walk down the street with a cocktail, you can still see the performers on Sunset Pier at Mallory Square while watching the sunset, and there are still lots of tacky souvenir shops, but the beaches have been taken over by corporate resorts, condos have been built on every square inch of undeveloped land and the island is very much geared to the affluent American and International tourist. Tour buses and hop-on/off trolleys abound, boutique hotels and expensive restaurants are everywhere and privately chartered sports fishing boats are a booming business. Newly arrived residents even tried to rid the island of the famous roosters by hiring a rooster hunter (really), but many of the older residents kidnapped and hid the roosters in their homes to save their lives and the rooster hunter eventually gave up and went home. The long-time residents are trying to hold the fort down for as long as they can, but eventually, the developers will sadly hold most of the cards. Time marches on, development continues and there is a lot of tourist money to be made...I get it, but Jimmy Buffet has definitely left the building.   

At least the roosters are still there...(photo by Simone Cannon)


Friday, February 20, 2015

Tarpon, Sunsets and Fishing Boats: The Upper Florida Keys

Catch of the Day, Key Largo, Florida (photo by Luis Bastardo)

When the rep at  told me that Bahia Honda State Park was fully booked, I was starting to resign myself to the fact that we would not find cheap (or for that matter, any) campsites throughout the Florida Keys. We had arrived in high season and all sites were solidly booked through April or May and we had been unable to reserve ahead of time due to family crises. So I couldn't believe it when she said "Oh wait...two nights just opened up at Long Key State Park for $38 a night; someone just cancelled. Do you want them?" "Yesss!!!!!" I screamed into the poor woman;'s ear. I couldn't believe our luck; it felt like winning the lottery! We had called around and the sites ranged in price from $65 for dry camping with no electricity, water or sewer to $105 for a full hookup, way out of our budget. We thought that we might have to give the Keys a pass until our luck suddenly changed. The next day, we hit US1 for the long drive south. 

Luis feeding a tarpon, Robbie's, Islamorada (photo by Simone Cannon) 

First stop, Key Largo, is in the upper keys, many of which are bedroom communities for Miami commuters. The vibe is laid back: chartered fishing and dive trips, t-shirt shops and casual, waterside restaurants serving items like conch fritters and fish tacos. We stopped at Robbie's to feed the tarpon with bait fish, no simple task with the marauding pelicans nipping at our legs and hands in an attempt to commandeer the fish. We had a lovely waterfront lunch of conch fritters and tarpon tacos (hey, they were well fed) washed down with Islamorada Citrus Ale

Luis at The Hungry Tarpon restaurant, Robbie's, Islamorada (photo by Simone Cannon) 

After a relaxing meal, we headed to our campground at Long Key State Park. We arrived at the small, sleepy park in the late afternoon to catch the last rays of a gorgeous sunset. Our site was just inches away from the small beach and the sea's shallow, tranquil waters. As the sun set, the sky darkened and we were lucky enough to have a moonless night, so we also had a fantastic view of the milky way. Tomorrow, we head to Key West, which should be interesting since I haven't visited in 30 years. Guessin' things may have changed a tad...

Sunset at Long Key State Park (photo by Simone Cannon)



Friday, February 13, 2015

My Favorite Wildlife Photos: Florida Keys

Here are a few wildlife photos that I snapped during our recent visit to the Florida Keys:

 Green Iguana in mating colors, Islamorada, Florida

 Brown pelicans in a struggle for the same fish, Islamorada

Snow white egret, Islamorada

 Green iguana, Big Pine Key

 Brown pelicans, Islamorada

 Brown pelican Islamorada

 Resting brown pelican, Islamorada

Wading snowy egret, Islamorada

 Cormorants, Long Key State Park

Ibises, Long Key State Park