20 May - Of Mustangs and cats in the Florida Keys
On Saturday 19th, we embarked on our first US road trip. You have to do these things properly, so we hired a bright red Ford Mustang convertible. A true piece of American petrolhead muscle, it was rather nice: well built, decent quality fittings and a suitably throaty roar when you put your foot down. The soft top is a bit easier to deploy and retract than my beloved Lotus Elise, but on balance I don’t think I’ll swap!
The end, or the beginning?
We headed north along Highway 1, through the Keys. There isn’t much choice, after all! The road is an engineering marvel, stringing together an archipelago of tiny islands with some fine bridges. Interestingly, it all stems from the vision and dynamism of an oil tycoon, Henry Flagler, who was one of the founders of Standard Oil along with Mr Rockefeller. Whilst most Brits have heard of Rockefeller, I don’t think many of us know much about Mr Flagler. But he drove the construction of a railway from the mainland all the way to Key West which transformed the Keys into the tourist mecca that they are today. He built hotels and an infrastructure to support this ambitious and technically demanding enterprise. In due course, the railway was paved over to make a fine road. Today, some of Flagler’s bridges have been replaced, but much of his vision remains in place. His name appears everywhere.
Bahia Honda in the Florida Keys. Flagler’s original railway to the left, the current road to the right.
The western section of the road was the most interesting: less built up, we felt as though we were driving through more of a wilderness. For much of the way, you can see the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic on the other. Many of the Keys along the highway are developed with the usual sprawl of slightly tawdry light engineering, fishing tackle shops, fast food joints and secondhand car lots alongside the road. Just behind them, residential areas of varying levels of sophistication and glamour peek through the palms, mangroves and pines. The waterfront properties are pretty impressive, but they keep the ordinary person away from the beach and the sea. The best way to see all this is by boat, preferably something with a very shallow draft and a very large outboard motor.
We stopped at a ‘Dolphin Research Centre’, only to walk away when it became clear that there was no research going on and it was just a tourist moneyspinner exploiting these beautiful sea mammals. We drove to Key Largo because the name is quite evocative and found a decent waterfront restaurant called ‘Snappers’ for lunch. They had been hit quite badly by Hurricane Irma (after all, most of the Keys are only a metre or so above sea level) and the kitchen was in a mobile trailer. It seemed surprising that they were still rebuilding when many other similar enterprises were back on their feet; apparently the planning approvals process can be quite protracted in Florida. Suitably fortified with clam chowder and coconut shrimp, we headed for the town centre. After driving around for half an hour, I succumbed to pressure to call in at the tourist information office. Er, no. The town centre is the highway. That’s it. No seafront boulevard with trendy boutiques and coffee shops and ice cream parlours and fishing boats. Everyone goes to Key West – what on earth did you come here for? Suitably informed, we turned south for Key West.
It rained for much of the day, so we didn’t get the full value from the Mustang’s soft top, but we did stop at a couple of State Parks to try to get a feel for the natural beauty of the place. We also visited the Worldwide Sportsman establishment at Islamorada, the self-proclaimed ‘capitol’ (sic) of the sports fishing industry. It’s a huge site on the Gulf of Mexico, with a smart marina, a couple of restaurants and a massive store selling everything from funny little coloured flies, to swimwear, jewellery, tents, outboard motors and some extremely unpleasant fruit pastilles that we chucked in the trash as soon as possible. Beautifully laid out, the whole place seemed to typify that self-confident, clean living, life-affirming view of American private enterprise. Not too saccharin, but not quite real either. I preferred the old town, slightly ramshackle experience of Key West.
Part of the ‘Wolrdwide Sportsman complex. Unbelievably neat.
We found that at Stock Island, on the outskirts of Key West. This is where the shrimp boats live and the waterfront area is exactly as you might imagine – rough decking, everything on stilts hanging out over the water, an improbably collection of boats and boaters, some great bars and restaurants. Not a ‘chain store’ in sight. Wall to wall trucks with huge coolers ‘in back’, deep southern accents, country music singers singing to themselves on bar stools whilst the patrons gorge themselves on deep fried this and that with ‘slaw’ and ‘mac’n’cheese’ (stodge, actually, normally in a cube). A glorious sunset offset by some serious thunder clouds and an amusing encounter with a sales assistant from West Marine who had asked us if we were excited about the Royal Wedding a few days earlier. He lives on a houseboat at Stock Island, seems like a nice bloke and we wondered how he had ended up by himself at the bottom end of USA living on a 40’ floating portacabin…
Stock Island bar.
On balance, I think that if you visit Florida, you should definitely come to Key West. The road trip is interesting, primarily because of the road itself, rather than the scenery around it, which has been largely ruined by the road… ah, the irony. The highlight of the road is the ‘Seven Mile Bridge’ which epitomises the vision, determination and persistence of all that is best about the USA. The low point of the road is the tatty development all along it which epitomises… The undisputed highlight of the trip is Key West itself.
The rain continued on Sunday. We returned the hire car and then sheltered from some really serious rain for ages before it eased sufficiently to cycle into town to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house. His influence, so clear in Havana, is also a huge part of Key West life and his image is everywhere. Interestingly, he only met Castro once at a fishing competition prizegiving, but that image appears all over Cuba. Here in Key West, it seems that every building and family has a Hemingway story attached. The house is nice and the exhibits interesting, but it’s more of a museum and an introduction to the films that were made from his work than an insight into the man himself. And it was full of cats. The guided tours (which we did not participate in) seemed to focus more on the cats and their progeny and what treats they liked than anything else. Saccharin overload…
Hemingway’s House in Key West
We escaped to visit Tennessee William’s house instead. Except that it turned out not to be his actual house, but just an exhibition centre. My degree dissertation at Durham University was on Tennessee Williams and his interpretation of the American Dream, so I was particularly interested. There was plenty of memorabilia, but nothing specifically of his own property. It was all quite interesting – I had not realised that only William Shakespeare wrote more stuff in his lifetime than Tennessee. And was he really murdered, or did he just take too many pills?
We returned to the boat and got ready to depart. We motored round to Conch Harbor to take on fuel, only to see the JSASTC yacht Discoverer of Hornet coming in. We saw Adventure in Antigua; Disco is on her way home from the Pacific with a mainly Army crew. She looked good!
Disco entering Key West
Having taken on 50 US gallons of fuel, we moved out to anchor off the city to wait for a few hours – we wanted to arrive at St Augustine (some 400 miles away) in daylight. We came across a small dinghy drifting with nobody in it, so took it in tow and called the Coastguard once we had anchored. That turned out to be a long winded discussion over Channel 16 with an operator who seemed to have a standard list of questions for any scenario and little idea of what was actually going on out on the water. When he asked me to send him photos of the dinghy, I refused. The thing had a registration number on the side, so why couldn’t he just look it up and ring the owner? As I contemplated setting the thing adrift, a group of people in an overloaded rubber boat showed up – one of them was the owner. A short time later, they reappeared and towed the thing away, promising me some beer. I’m still waiting…
At sunset, we sailed from Key West and headed south to pick up the Gulf Stream and ride it east.