We head south to see if Florida can offer more than just Disney World
Words and main image: James Renhard
I received the best news I’d had to date in my short life. I could have burst. I was eleven years old, and my parents told me we were going on holiday to Florida. This, of course, meant only one thing: We were going to Disney World.
My eleven year-old self is not alone. To many, when you mention Florida they picture one thing: Disney World. The southernmost state in mainland USA is synonymous with the cartoon theme park, with Mickey Mouse, Goofy, screaming kids and overweight parents, pebbledashed with sweat, trying to control them. Cinderella’s castle. Gigantic hot dogs. Even bigger cups of brightly coloured, sugary pop. To many, it’s heaven.
But Disney World, and the theme parks around it make up only a tiny part of the state of Florida. Theme parks sit on just 0.06 per cent of a state that’s over 65,000 square miles in size. Surely there’s more to this archipelago than novelty Mickey Mouse hats and candy-floss. It can’t all be a theme park. Can it?
Intrigued, but determined to avoid the theme parks, 25 years after my first visit, I headed to the Keys – a hundred-mile-long series of islands at the southernmost tip of Florida, to see what else the state on the edge of the US has to offer.
Being an archipelago, perhaps it’s unsurprising that the ocean dictates a large part of life in the Florida Keys. At all times you feel like you’re right on the edge of a deep blue abyss, both in the most obvious, geographical sense, but it also permeates virtually every conversation.
The British talk proudly about being an island nation, but this amounts to no more than words when you’re standing in a Birmingham shopping centre. The residents of the Florida Keys can, however, truly claim to be island folk. The sea, and its inhabitants hold a special place in their heart.
Sitting just south of the Everglades National Park, Key Largo is the entrance to the Keys, and offers unparalleled access to the deep water reef that surrounds much of the archipelago. Although not as famous as its cousin in the South Pacific, the Florida Barrier Reef is the third largest in the world.
At its most northerly point in Key Largo, the reef sits at its shallowest, and can be easily explored by scuba divers. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park offers a visit to the subaquatic world, so it was the obvious first place to stop on my journey through the Keys.
‘Today’s wave level is high’ warned signs in the snorkel shop. “I’m afraid we can only allow experienced snorkellers out today,” insisted the woman in the store. What I lack in snorkelling prowess, I make up for in an ability to lie shamelessly, and I told her I was an old hand at snorkelling. She bought it.
My bravado soon wore off when the skipper of the boat wryly asked: “So, everybody here’s an experienced snorkeller then?”. Presumably sensing the collective fear in the boat, or the fact that most on board suddenly looked directly at the deck like misbehaving school children, he charitably bellowed: “Those who need a refresher, come and see me before you jump in,” lingering deliberately over the word ‘refresher’.
Mask and snorkel in place, suddenly, the rich, saccharine air of the Key Largo afternoon disappeared as I jumped from the boat into a completely different world. The rusty oranges of the land vanished, replaced with a surreal burst of turquoise sea and tropical fish of every colour.
Diving in this environment is both familiar and alien. I didn’t just feel like a tourist, gawping at animals against their will. Maybe it was the warmth of the sun, or the charm of the Good Old Boys on the boat, but diving at John Pennecamp made me feel a genuine connection with the reef, and its inhabitants. The 90 minutes spent in the water flew by.
I swam back to the boat to find the Captain all-but tapping his watch and telling me to hurry up as I scrambled with the style and grace of a donkey in Wetherspoons onto the back of the boat.
The next morning, and an hour-long drive later I reached Islamorada. It proudly touts itself as the ‘sportfishing capital of the world’, and up and down the highway are giant billboards featuring cartoon marlin and other assorted fish.
Robbie’s Marina was my next chance to explore what natural adventures the Keys had to offer. I boarded a boat that was largely full of hardened fishing enthusiasts. Young men with an unhealthy disposition for Nu Metal, silver-haired Good Old Boys, and robust out-of-towners sporting Boston Celtics merchandise. In my head, I heard them all chanting “Build that wall”.
My presupposed prejudices, both towards fishing and my companions were soon shattered. The locals were warm, chatty, and helpful. “They call the captain of this boat the Honey Badger,” one tells me with a hearty chuckle. “‘Cause he does whatever the fuck he likes”. I’m still unsure if this was meant as a compliment or not.
“What Trump does don’t matter, he’s only President on the mainland”
I mentioned to another, who looked like the Marlboro Man would now, that despite my best efforts, I’ve never caught a fish before. “This Skipper will get you some. He knows these waters. All you’ll have to do is cast out.” His enthusiasm was warming, but ultimately inaccurate. My days without a catch endure.
Thirty minutes south of Islamorada is Marathon, and the home of the TurtleHospital. Numerous turtles live in the waters around the Florida Keys, but both increases in pollution and human activity in the water have seen the health of these Florida natives decline over the years. The non-profit Turtle Hospital was set up to care for injured and sick turtles, but its history comes dripping in typical American storytelling.
The Turtle Hospital is a former motel, complete with a swimming pool. In the 1990s, quick to turn a popular trend into cold-hard cash, the proprietors jumped on the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and turned the run-down pool into a Turtle pond to attract tourists.
However, the turtles soon stopped being mere cash-cows as the owners started to see the damage humans were doing to the turtle population. The motel was closed, and transformed into America’s very first Turtle Hospital, which it remains to this day, returning repaired turtles to the wild, and giving those too damaged a home for life.
The following morning, I headed south again through what feels like familiar scenery. Hopping from island to island, key to key, over the thin network of bridges that connect them all creates a sort of embracing rhythm. The speed of the highway disappears into what feels like a slow, relaxed meander.
“Are there any crocodiles in these waters?”
The dense mangroves that line many of the islands and bridges are my next adventure playground as I arrive in Big Pine Key. Along with Captain Bill, a guide from Big Pine Kayak Adventures, I take a tandem kayak and paddle out. Every now and again Bill brings us to a halt to retrieve various alien looking animals from the shallow sea bed beneath.
Before long we headed into the dense mangrove. It’s a thrilling world. A network of gnarled, natural tunnels made by the mangrove branches, occasionally permeated by shafts of sunlight. It was too narrow to use the oars, instead we had to pull ourselves along, grabbing onto the low hanging mangroves. Some were so low that we had to contort ourselves into strange, horizontal positions to get beneath them, all without tipping the kayak over.
I felt like Indiana Jones on a true voyage of exploration. The peril and perceived danger made it thrilling. “Are there any crocodiles in these waters?” asked a fellow kayaker. “If there are, they’re only in transit. Just passing through.” Bill replied, seemingly oblivious that all any of us wanted to hear was a firm “No”.
Breathless, partly through excitement, partly exhaustion, we head back to shore. 300 miles north, Walt Disney and co can’t possibly create an experience like this, in their world of plastic, popcorn, and puppetry.
The final leg of my journey through the Keys saw me head for Key West. Although it’s the most southerly of the islands, Key West very much feels like the heart of the Keys. However, it sits right on the edge of mainland America, not just geographically, but seemingly sociologically too.
Many of the locals don’t really consider Key West to be part of the United States at all. A famously liberal town, I asked one Key West resident what they made of of the Trump presidency. “That don’t matter,” was the surprising reply. “He’s only President on the mainland”.
For all of its aversion to mainland USA, Key West remains charmingly American. It looks like an old-world town from somewhere in the deep south, with a rich mix of creole and liberalism running through its veins. It also retains that very American trait of ushering you through the gift shop at any given opportunity. To call it a tourist trap is to do it a disservice. It’s a playground, both for those that visit and for those that reside more permanently.
One evening, I ate with a local author Carol Shaughnessy at the Hot Tin Roof restaurant. From the off, it was obvious she was an expert storyteller, weaving rich tapestries about the history of the island, its war of independence with the mainland, and the Lilliputian-like battles over the right way to make Key Lime Pie.
In fact Key Lime Pie – the signature dish of the Keys – is a perfect allegory for the tall tales spun about Key West. While it’s all essentially the same end product, everybody has their own way of making them, presenting them, and each and every person believes theirs to be definitive.
Taking guided tours of Key West are a good way to hear the different sides to many of these stories and tall tales. Key West is a small town, and can be easily enjoyed on two wheels with Key Lime Bike Tours. Slowly weaving around the Americana-sodden streets, drinking in the rich heritage, and trying to decipher truth from, well, a more sugar-spun version of the truth proved to be an enjoyable way to spend the morning.
Passing the former home of Ernest Hemingway – now a museum dedicated to him – Chris, my guide from Key Lime Bike Tours, treated me to the tale of why the wall around the property looks like it was put up in one night by the intoxicated author and his equally drunk friends (because it was), and how that specific location was chosen for his house because the glow from the nearby lighthouse would act as a beacon, calling him home when he’d spent too long drinking up inspiration in Sloppy Joe’s.
“Nature’s ugliest animals only come out in the darkness”
As ever in the Keys, the ocean proved magnetic, and that evening saw me heading out after nightfall on a glass bottom kayak at Ibis Bay. Lit from beneath by strips of LED’s, a guide from Key West Paddle took myself and a small group out across the shallow ocean bed. It was a chance to see the sea creatures that come out at night, in their natural environment.
It has been said that nature’s uglier animals only come out in the darkness, and so it was proved, as all manner of crabs, sea slugs, and many other unspeakably alien looking wildlife passed unknowingly beneath my gaze. It felt like a voyage to a different planet, the stillness of the night adding an edge to the sights normally reserved for creatures of the deep. It was as an enchanting experience as any I’d had during my stay.
The Florida Keys are a wonderful, warm, and welcoming place, where nothing ever really feels like a facade, or a show. Key West in particular is a harmonic bubble that, has an innate ability to wrap you up and suck you into its leisurely, happy-go-lucky rhythm.
The ecology and the ocean that surround the Keys, which is at the heart of what a lot of people do, is an adventure playground, rich with experiences ready to be had. Discovery is for sale. Everything can be bought for an entrance fee and a tip.
I went to the Florida Keys to discover something other than a theme park. To get away from the seemingly inevitable pull of Disney. What I found, in a strange way, was a different version of the very thing I was trying to avoid: an unexpected, organic, natural theme park, rich with a cast of larger-than-life characters and fairy tales. And I loved it.