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Smooth sailing among the

Florida Keys

Published in the Winter  2013 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By Michael Morcos

With everything being so vastly connected these days, it can be difficult for destinations to fully retain their own personality. However, the landlocked, island-style nature of the Florida Keys has allowed the area to flourish in its own right, creating fun, quirky communities and a vibrant cultural scene along the way. The state is beautiful, but there is something special and fun going on at its most southern tip.

A wonderful stay at Casa Marina

While much of Key West is a little kooky, this would not be the right word to describe this luxurious and wonderfully comfortable hotel. Everything is immaculate, from the plush linens and soft colors to the private pool and dining options. The hotel fully encompasses the easy, breezy lifestyle so many Floridians hold dear as they go about their daily lives along the water. I felt as if I had escaped to another world where there is always sun and no worries to be had.

Tasty Cuban cuisine

Being so close to Cuba, Key West can’t help but be influenced by this vibrant and colorful country, especially when it comes to food. I savored a memorable meal at El Meson de Pepe right in Key West, which specializes in local favorites and spiny connections straight from Cuba. Family owned and operated for more than two decades, this establishment serves up dishes such as pork marinated with onions and antojitos, which is cheese and chorizo over crunchy plantain chips.

An old-fashioned trolley ride

Getting an eye full of my surroundings, I stepped aboard one of the classic trolleys that glide along the streets of Key West. This was a great way to enjoy a bit of everything, including ocean views and historical buildings. Easy, fun and informative, travelers young and old were on the trolley with their faces against the windows checking out the sights.

Make way for Hemingway

History buffs who arrive in Key West often make a beeline for the Hemingway House. The famous American author was well-known throughout the 20th century and lived all over the world, but Key West was where he owned a home and spent much of his time. Nowadays guests can tour his old home and peer into the life of a highly celebrated writer. I strolled through the palm-tree lined gardens and took a guide tour to view the relic Hemingway left inside the house, such as furniture, paintings and, of course, books.

Follow-up at Hemingway’s old watering hole

Taking a tour of a home is one thing, but I truly wanted to follow in the steps of Hemingway’s interesting antics. So, there was a drink to be had at Sloppy Joe’s. Illuminated by flashing neon, this iconic bar and restaurant has been in this very spot for more than 75 years, with travelers from all over making a point to have a pint and take in the scene. Reveling in all things fun, they host Hemingway look-alike contests, serve fruit pina coladas and have live entertainment year-round.

Touring the Shipwreck museum

Navigating through the Florida Keys can be precarious for seafaring sailors. I learned about what it takes to make a living on the island’s waters at this museum, complete with tours, nautical artifacts and historical demonstrations. I also climbed to the top of the observation tower and was rewarded with spectacular views of Key West and the shoreline.

Relaxing and enjoying the view 

As a rite of passage, most visitors who venture to the Florida Keys have to make the journey to the southernmost tip of the continental U.S. There are ideal places for taking pictures there, especially as the sun goes down. many people choose to lay out on the sandy beach as well.

Kitschy fun downtown

Key West almost looks frozen in time, holding neon lighting and art deco design above everything else. One of the best things to do is walk downtown on a weekend night and take in the lively, thrilling environment. For instance, I stumbled upon a lifelike statue of Marilyn Monroe outside of a movie theatre, one of many art installations throughout the city.

The Cuban influence in Key West 

Not only did I dine on fantastic Cuban cuisine, the culture of these latin neighbors permeated many facets of Key West life. The city is known for its dance halls and cuban cigars, although the tobacco cannot really be from Cuba.

Sunset celebration at Mallory Square

The epicenter of key West is Mallory square, frequented by tourists and locals alike for shopping, sightseeing and the famous sunset celebration. Each evening right before the sun does down, the artists and creative types of the city gather to offer their wares, entertainment and services to a massive crowd. I saw everything from psychics and crafters to food trucks and jewelers.

Indulging in regional eats

Seafood lovers are in luck, as the islands are obviously surrounded by ocean, allowing for some seriously fresh catch of the day. At the elegant Pier House restaurant, I sampled their speciality of sweet lobster and filet mignon, all while overlooking the beautiful dock and marina.

Viewing Perky’s Bat Tower

Another look into the more eccentric side of the Florida Keys can be had at this landmark. Just off the road stands a wooden tower, built decades ago in hopes of attracting bats. While its purpose was unsuccessful, it now is a place for visitors to scrawl their names and leave mementos of their trip.

Strolling through the Bahia Honda State Park

Not all state parks get to boast of a beautiful coastline like Bahia Honda. The endless beaches and lush vegetation impressed me as I hiked through in the warm, sunny weather. This is where the adventure seekers can roam, as there is options for kayaking, fishing, snorkeling and even camping.

Lunch by the island

After a short boat ride back from Pigeon Key, a tiny island with a big persona of relaxation and fun, it was time for a local favourite. I had a fantastic raw bar and sushi at the popular Sunset Grille, which also offers speciality drinks and seafood like fresh tuna, crab cakes and coconut shrimp

Wildlife rehabilitated

With all the beautiful flora and fauna that call the Florida Keys home, many scientists and specialists do everything they can to protect the fragile environment and its inhabitant. I witness first hand these efforts being made at the Turtle Hospital as sick and injured animals are nursed back to health and released into the wild. Some have been struck by boats, other suffer from lung infections, but all the turtles are well cared for by a top notch staff.

A dolphin adventure

The dolphins too are well-loved by locals and have their own center for rehabilitation and care. I had a fascinating time photographing these creatures that are very intelligent and interactive. Further research is being done at this center to find out more about their habits and what can be done to help.

Beachside accommodations

A beachside room at the Postcard Inn resort cannot be beat while staying in the Keys. Not only were my accommodations home-like and nautically themed, the rooftop terrace had unbeatable, panoramic vistas of the ocean. Many rooms come with a balcony that is well worth the splurge. Nothing beat sitting by the pool either and reveling in the hazy Florida day that lay before me.

Time well spent at the History of Diving Museum

Ever since man first figured out how to hold his breath, people have been venturing below the ocean’s surface. Those interested in this pastime will not want to miss Key Largo’s diving museum, outlining a rich past of underwater exploration for centuries. I had fun interacting with the many exhibits that highlight various forming of diving, including submerged photography, marine biology, treasure diving and sports diving. I was most intrigued by the large collection of diving helmets from every corner of the globe, representing 24 different nations and their underwater accomplishments.

Coral Reef State Park

Without the reefs of the Florida Keys, all the marine like dolphins and turtles would have nowhere to live, so their conservation is just as important. I found out about this and more while at the Coral Reef State Park during my glass boat tour. This let me get up close to the reefs without creating any damage. Afterwards I spent time at the Coral Restoration Foundation and discovered the various species of marine life found in this part of the world. Divers who visit this non-profit can find out how to correctly view animals and work on spreading the world about protecting the beautiful underwater ecosystem.

Aboard the African Queen

There was one more boat tour to enjoy in the keys. I hopped onto the AFrican Queen, the same vessel used in the iconic movie from the 1950s. It was recently saved from being scrap metal and instead transformed into a wonderful, nostalgic piece of movie history that can now be admired by all types of curious tourists. While cruising down the canals, the guide told me about the upcoming Humphrey Bogart film festival that is hosted on the islands every year in May, featuring old classics and edgy newcomers as well.

Visit Florida’s theme parks and wildlife reserves can be a great getaway, but the Keys are something above all the others, as they have an unapologetic way of welcoming strangers into the fold and offering them an unforgettable vacation.

For More Info: www.fla-keys.com