On the other hand, I’m glad I’ve done it once. We were in a ‘commuter plane’---a propeller-driven flying Greyhound bus, except less commodious and with no toilet---so I had a good view (when I could bring myself to look) of what was below. You can look at a map of Florida and see for yourself that the southern center of Florida (including, but not limited to the Everglades) is still largely unspoiled. Lake Okeechobee is there and someday when I can tear my way from my own piece of the state I’d like to see it. We could see the Everglades as well, but with all the news about recent alligator attacks, I think I’ll hold off on going there.
The trip down the coast and through the Keys was charming and memorable, but not quite the transcendent experience I’d been expecting. Here in the North I’ve learned that Florida is one of the places whose magic (and whether you have experienced it or not, the magic is there to be experienced) edges up on you when you’re looking at something else. To find it, you have to see places at the right time of year and even at the right time of day.
For example, people who are used to the endless white sand expanses of the beaches of Central or South Florida don’t think much of this North Florida beach. Everything is all piled up onto rock-bound cliffs and you’d damn well not be at the bottom when high tide comes along. And to experience its full magical properties you have to have the right conjunction of circumstances and get up at dawn. At dawn, you can see the sun come up like thunder out of the Atlantic (forget the “rosy fingers of dawn” that you will see stretching over the peaceful beaches on the Gulf). It’s a powerful and visually shocking experience.
Afterwards, if you then go down to the beach for an early morning walk, you may find yourself in a world of blue and sun-saturated gold. The rocks, sand, and houses (reflected in the sands) are bathed in light. It’s a place where the waves break powerfully, so as background you have the thing that I always miss when I’m on the (otherwise beloved) Gulf side, the sea-sound.
At least, that’s what I experienced on a certain early morning one day in October. If you went at some other time of day or at some other season, you’d have a different experience.
Anyway, the Keys. When people who don’t know Florida think of Florida, most of them think: St. Augustine, Daytona, Orlando/Disney, Palm Beach, Miami, the Keys. The Keys, meaning really Key West, are one of the places people imagine as ‘romantic,’ meaning full of atmosphere, meaning really that you are going to pay more there off-season than you would have to pay in places that aren’t destination-points for honeymooners.
The drive through the keys to Key West was definitely the high spot of the trip for me, though even that had its disappointing aspects. For one thing, I was expecting vast beaches, such as one finds in the South Carolina sea islands or the North Carolina outer banks. I guess I was expecting the same big sky as well. Instead, Key Largo looked like North Florida, only with more palm trees but fewer liveoaks. In the unsympathizing light of day, it didn’t look like much. Maybe the vast beaches are there, but not visible from the road; I don’t know. At any rate, I didn’t see any.
The Keys on the days I was there didn’t reveal the glassy blue-green tints that I was expecting after visits to the Panhandle Beaches and west coast beaches. I suppose I was expecting what I (and evidently many other Floridians) think of as “Florida colors”: the greenish blues and coral tints that you really do see year-round in the towns on the Tampa Bay and along the coast of the Panhandle.
I am not saying that they weren’t beautiful or didn’t have their own power to enchant because they were and they did. Even the ones (like Key Largo) that are ‘built up’ have the same bygone late-1960s feel of the northern stretch of Highway 19 in the west; lots of little restaurants and bars and motels.
And on the way down, I hit them at a time of the day when they were at their best: late afternoon, sunset, the early evening. I saw an amazing sunset over the Gulf when we were traveling down there. There was a long stretch of road that went right alongside the water. The clouds drifting overhead were filled with light. The sky was that clear luminous peach tint. As the man said, no one can describe a sunset, so I’ll leave it there. Watching it from my window, I felt slightly breathless and---what’s the word, transported?---on the verge of feeling that as well.
Nevertheless, I was a bit let down by the disjunct between my imagination and the reality. I’m not really aware that I’ve given much thought to the Keys during my life. I can remember as a child finding the name “Key Largo” especially evocative---perhaps because the song “Key Largo” is strangely evocative. Again, there was a very large disjunct before what I’d (at some level) obviously envisioned. I suppose I must have had the notion at some unconscious level that it would look like “Moon Over Miami”-type photographs of Miami Beach as shown on the old Jackie Gleason Show that my parents used to watch. Big moon, big beach, big water. Anyway, Key Largo has a lot to offer, but it isn’t at all like that. It’s very small-town Florida in its look and feel.
Further along, there are plenty of vistas and plenty of beauty, but all of the same sort you can find in North Florida or the Panhandle. In other words, it was beautiful in a familiar and ubiquitous way (from the standpoint of a Floridian) and I guess I was expecting it to be uniquely beautiful.
And what about the Conch Republic a/k/a Margaritaville?
As far as ambiance, there is plenty of that---if you go to the right part of Key West, that is. As I have constant access to Florida ambiance even here in North Central Florida, it probably didn’t affect me the same way it would affectnatives of places that aren’t Florida.
In the area of Duvall Street and Front Street it is certainly charming. There is a part that has the provisionally pretty look of a place where much of what used to be authentic charm has been converted to bed and breakfast inns. You walk under huge old trees alongside beautiful lacy white houses to get to streets filled with unique shopping, superb restaurants, music bars. The music bars are better than they are in most other beach towns that I’ve visited. In that part of town, the standard of entertainment (including accommodations, food, music, and sundry diversions) is really high. If I didn’t have access to less expensive (but still satisfactory) versions of the same things, it might have knocked me off my feet.
If you want to know about tours (the Ernest Hemingway House, etc.), I am sure a guidebook can tell you all about them. I have never enjoyed poking around old houses and I am not a museum kind of a person. There were some very appealing art galleries but I could see from looking in the windows that I couldn’t even dream of affording to buy anything (unlike art on display at equally appealing galleries in my favorite North Florida artist’s island). What can I say; it’s pretty-pretty-pretty all up and down that part of town, wherever you look and there is a lot of excellent arto.
If you can afford to stay there (and even in the off-season, it’s really expensive) you could immerse yourself in quaintness, charm, ambiance, frilly drinks with fruit in them, and delicious food. Did I mention it’s expensive?
The wedding I attended on the Hyatt Hotel’s pier was the second prettiest I ever saw (and it was competing against a wedding held at sunset beside the ocean at Clearwater Beach where all the guests and wedding party members were wearing khaki pants or skirts and white shirts). It’s a great place for a destination wedding if you and your guests can afford the destination.
I don’t know; if I weren’t from Florida, I might never have wanted to leave. Is it wrong that I didn’t feel that way? I prefer the beaches on Amelia Island, Clearwater Beach, Sarasota, and Ormond Beach.
So I guess in the end, I really just liked Key West a lot, whereas I was expecting to adore it. I expected mystique. I expected to be transported. In the end, I just thought: yes, charming, fun, great food, atmosphere, but yet not quite…all that. But there again, you know: North Floridian. I’m definitely biased toward my own (endlessly beautiful) part of the state.