The first thing that comes to my mind when talking about Florida, “The Sunshine State” and the Land of Flowers in Spanish, is, I confess, Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs in the TV series Miami Vice: a warm climate, streets lined with Palm trees, the long white sandy beaches of Miami, the upscale South Beach neighborhood with its trendy cafes and terraces and nightlife, building facades in pastel shades of pink, green and blue, not to mention those “sexy” cabriolets and sailboats… But Florida is much more than this! The Sunshine State offers other magnificent surprises. It is a “State” unlike all the others. You can travel in peace and quiet and spend a classic seaside holiday gathering seashells on the beach (by yourself or with the Canadian singer Roch Voisine) or have some fun in one of the amusement parks of Orlando, Disney, Universal Studios, Sea World, or visit the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, or play “Crocodile Dundee” in the Everglades. In Florida, everyone can find happiness! And if you dreamed of going to the United States, but your English is basic… and your Spanish is satisfactory: Florida is for you! ¿Estáis listos? Aquí vamos (a la playa).
Our first journey is to Florida‘s southern tip, a stunning region that hosts the Everglades, the largest tropical wilderness and swamp, and a string of “paradisiacal” islands, the Florida Keys (Key is derived from the Spanish word Cayo meaning small island), … coral reefs, sandy beaches, and a small town at the end of the world with colonial and Caribbean decor… More than promising, right ? Key West accessible is about a 3-hour drive from the mainland via a panoramic ocean highway, the Overseas Highway or U. S. Highway 1. It is the southernmost city in the United States and just 90 miles north of Cuba! Further west in the Gulf of Mexico, you can reach the remote Dry Tortugas Natural Park including several small islands located 70 miles from Key West and only accessible by boat or seaplane. The Park is home to Fort Jefferson, blue waters, and coral reefs. The Keys were, before the completion of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Highway in the early 1910, the preserve of pirates and adventurers… They are now devoted to tourism, boating, fishing and Scuba diving ! This archipelago consists of approximately 1,700 islands and islets (mostly uninhabitable), forming a large natural barrier along the Florida Straits dividing the Atlantic Ocean to the east from the Gulf of Mexico to the northwest. The Keys are divided into 3 parts: Upper Keys, Middle Keys and Lower Keys all connected by bridges. You dreamed of walking or rather driving on water ? Lovers of road trips step over the ocean using the 42 bridges of the Overseas Highway, a true game of leapfrog over the picturesque, turquoise water !
Our journey to the Florida’s keys starts with a required stop in Key Largo, Upper Florida Keys, at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, only about 15 miles from Miami. Key Largo, 33 miles long and about 2 miles wide, is the largest of the islands in the archipelago … But why does the name seem so familiar? Of course, the film “Key Largo” directed by John Huston and the fourth and final film pairing the mythical couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. The scenes of this 1948 movie were shot in… Hollywood, alas ! Too bad… nevertheless, the opening scene shows the U. S. 1 Highway… But let us return to the matter at hand or rather to our fish ! Lovers of snorkeling, it is time to take your gear, mask and snorkel and jump into the water ! The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is the first undersea park and best place in Florida to experience underwater wildlife: countless species of fish and coral home to crabs, sea urchins, sea snails, lobsters, shrimps, eels, starfish, sea cucumbers, flat sea urchins, barnacles, sponges, etc. welcome you to this natural reserve of about 110,000 acres. But will you be able to find Captain Nemo ? In 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Key Largo Coral Reef Reserve. In 1963, the Governor of Florida, Leroy Collins, changed the name to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in recognition of John Pennekamp’s efforts to protect the reefs and the marine life. The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is part of the Florida Key National Marine Sanctuary, which covers some 10,000 square kilometers of coral reefs, algae and mangroves. If you want to avoid getting wet, but are a little adventurous anyway, stroll through the mazes of the mangrove via the Mangrove Trail or the Wild Tamarind Trail. With a bit of luck, you can observe herons, white ibises, cormorants and ducks, or you will come across a green iguana. Without getting wet you can ride in glass-bottom boats offering a view of the magnificent reefs.
But let’s continue our road movie trip to the South (Le Sud so dear to French singer Nino Ferer): On dirait le Sud / Le temps dure longtemps / Et la vie sûrement / Plus d’un million d’années / Et toujours en été (It looks like the South / Time seems to last longer / And life surely does / More than a million years / And it’s always summer time). The road passes from island to island via very long bridges over a blue sparkling ocean on both sides. On the horizon, everything is just a vast luminous intensity of blues nuances dotted with shadows of passing birds. The Seven Mile Bridge… The 36th race of the “7-Mile Bridge Run” was held on the spring morning of April 1st. When it was built, the 7-Mile Bridge was the longest bridge in the United States and connects the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys. Today there are two bridges next to each other, the one used today was built between 1978 and 1982 and consists of 440 arches. The other bridge, the original, served the railway. Before the completion of Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railway the keys were only accessible by boat. The Overseas Railroad was inaugurated in 1912 and abandoned in 1935 after the Labor Day Hurricane of that year swept away over 35 miles of railroad tracks. The damaged tracks, too expensive to repair and unprofitable were never rebuilt… The railway was backfilled and the Overseas Highway replaced it until the passage of Hurricane Donna in 1960 ! Some sections of the original old bridge still survive, and they are accessible by foot and open to pedestrians. They have been the site of many film shootings such as “True Lies” (a breach in the bridge is the result of an explosion made for the film), Mission Impossible 3 or Permit to Kill… Of course, you remember the spectacular scene from the beginning of the latter when Sanchez, the drug lord, escapes !
Key West, the official capital of the “Conch Republic”, lies at the end of the archipelago after Key Largo and Islamorada (Upper Keys), Marathon (Middle Keys), Big Pine Key (Lower Keys). The name “Conch Republic” refers to a spiral white sea shell and the independent state created in jest in 1982 by Mayor Dennis Wardlow and the City council in response to their unsuccessful request to lift the inspection point for all northbound traffic on U. S. Highway 1. Key West cultivates its singularity… it is perhaps for this reason that it has attracted many artists and has also long been very “gay” friendly (like the places that Ziggy frequents in the song). Formerly called Cayo Hueso by the Spaniards due to many human bones found on the site when they arrived, the name was changed by the English into Key West. The city is about 4 miles long and 1 mile wide and closer to Havana (Cuba), 106 miles, than to Miami, 127 miles. In the 19th century, sponge fishing, the extraction of sea salt and the hunt for wrecks contributed to the prosperity of the Key West. Then the cigar industry, aided by the arrival of experienced Cuban workers, contributed to the economic development of the island. In 1890, half the population of Key West was of Cuban origin ! Today, tourism is king, Key West is a concentration of follies and seaside pleasures, trendy bars and Key Lime Pie. Some like the latter topped with meringue, others whipped cream, but everyone agrees that it is delicious and refreshing ! I’m talking about the pie, of course ! Legend has it that fishermen developed the recipe as they did not have a lot of fresh food on their boats and that the pie was made with concentrated canned milk and not fresh milk to prevent it from getting sour.
Enjoying a warm climate all year round, Key West is characterized by beautiful wooden homes lost amid lush vegetation. There are Victorian-inspired houses with a “Caribbean” look, Shotgun (narrow houses) and a typical Conch inspired by the Bahamas. The streets are lined with these charming wooden houses overlooking small lush tropical gardens, true havens of peace. Key West plunges us into the world of Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. Both wrote their best known works on the island. Ernest Hemingway’s former home, an ocher stone house immersed in lush vegetation, is located across from the lighthouse. Ernest Hemingway and his second wife Pauline purchased the house in 1931. Over the next 11 years Hemingway wrote “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in the house. But of course Hemingway immortalized the Keys with “The Old Man and the Sea” published in 1952 after his departure for Cuba. It was also the last major work published during his life time. In 1968, the house was designated a U. S. National Historic Landmark. The interior of the house features some furniture that belonged to the Hemingway family, newspaper clippings and yellowish photos of Ernest in Africa (where he went to hunt), Cuba, or Spain (where he covered the Spanish civil war in 1936 as a correspondent). A small narrow staircase leads to the former Hemingway office, where the typewriter stands. He used to work there from 6:00 am to 12:00 noon… The afternoon was devoted to fishing and the evening to drinking beers with friends at Sloppy Joe’s Bar! A comfortable life… suddenly, tac tac tac tac, the typewriter starts on its own ! Could it be a supernatural manifestation of the master of the place ? A small gathering begins to form around the machine: “My name is Bond, James Bond“… How is this possible ? Ian will you please return his machine to Ernest ! Ok, okay, I’ll talk about it too: this house is also famous because it was used in the 16th James Bond movie “License to Kill” as the setting for the scene where M withdraws James Bond’s license to kill. But in this world of celebrities, the undoubted stars of this house are the cats… six-toed cats, called “polydactyl” or sometimes “Hemingway cats”. The first of the line was Snowball (a gift from a friend in the Sloppy Joe’s Bar… during a night more liquid than the others… the story does not say any more !) And now there are sixty descendants of Hemingway’s original cat, each named after famous writers including Shakespeare, Cezanne, Bill Clinton, etc., in the house. All perform the favorite occupation of any good feline when it’s hot: the siesta! The white lighthouse, visible from the house, was built in 1847 to replace the original wooden tower destroyed the previous year by a hurricane. The 73-foot tall lighthouse was taken out of service in 1969, and completely restored in 1988. It is possible to climb its 88 steps to enjoy the view of the island.
Let’s leave the cozy atmosphere of the Hemingway house and head towards Duval Street, known for its bars, shops where you can buy your tee-shirt “I love the Keys”, multiple animations and eccentricities such as a kiss for 1 $… Duval Street and Truman Street are both streets where everyone hangs out until dawn and during the weekend site of a 24 hour non-stop party (a bit like Bourbon Street in New Orleans). Mallory Square is another major tourist spot in the old town, where several buildings date back to the 19th century: the Shipwreck Historeum and Museum, the Museum of Art & History, The Key West Aquarium etc. At the end of the day, everyone converges on Mallory Square Dock to admire the sunset… We accompany locals and tourists in their unshakable ritual: a gathering on the pontoon to celebrate the sunset, while enjoying the street shows with fire-eaters, fakirs, musicians, and jugglers. Last but not least is the Southernmost Point, at the corner of South and Whitehead Street. A concrete replica of a buoy indicates that Cuba is only 90 miles away… according to the famous phrase of President Kennedy during the missile crisis. The actual distance is 94 miles. The monument is one of the most visited and photographed attractions in the city! This marker replaced a simple sign in 1983, which was regularly stolen by the hunters of unusual souvenirs (now, if you want to steal the Southernmost Point monument, you need to come with a crane).
Hasta La Vista !