The Beach Boys famous hit tells us “Off the Florida keys, there’s a place called Kokomo……” Some people would debate as to whether Kokomo is an actual place or an imaginary one. Listening to the lyrics, perhaps it’s a “state of mind”. The song is, for most people, the first mention they hear of The Florida Keys, a string of over 100 islands which trail towards the Caribbean to the south of Florida. Indeed parts of the Keys are closer to Cuba than they are to the USA. The larger islands are linked by the US1 highway which sweeps travellers past stunning vistas of sea, sky and land.
The islands exude a very laid back feel. Reggae, soft rock and the sound of palm trees swaying in the breeze provide the backing track to many Keys experiences.
Part of the Key’s attraction is the abundance of seafood. At eateries like Marker 88, fresh fish are landed within sight of the restaurant and, on occasion, cooked on the beach. Local specialities include Yellow Tail Snapper, Octopus and Conch. Indeed, Conch (pronounced Conk) is so prolific, that is the nickname given to residents. Signs in the harbours and airports welcome you to the Conch Republic and Conch fritters are found on every menu you see…. And that includes breakfast!
The other omnipresent foodstuff is Key Lime. It turns up everywhere from Pies to sauces to Mojitos. Some people, like the legendary Kermit Carpenter have made their fortune creating Key Lime Pies on a daily basis. He is one of the most famous sights of the Florida Keys as he stands outside his Key West shop in his bright green uniform imploring people to call in. He is the Key Lime King and his shop offers all sorts of products from Key Lime Wine to fudge.
Base for my first two nights was the newly opened Amara Cay Resort in Islamorada.
This newly refurbished resort has a private beach and jetty and offers stunning views, particularly at sunrise. Given the “ribbon development” along the islands, a car is essential if heading to this resort.
The resort is not too far from local historic family restaurants and it is well worth trying breakfast at one of these establishments. Mrs Macs Kitchen is particularly quirky with its car registration plates on the walls and foreign bank notes in the ceiling. The great food is another reason to visit!
My other two nights were spent in Gates Hotel Key West which is based on a motel concept. There is a unique feel to the complex, which has a Rum Bar, a food truck and Jazz & blues singers at the poolside.
The US1 highway passes a number of interesting attractions as it heads south.
The African Queen is a long term Key Largo attraction. The original vessel from the Bogart & Hepburn movie now takes visitors on tours of the waterways around the island. The turtle Hospital in Marathon is an exceptional facility which caters for the many injured turtles that are found around the coastline. The charity relies on its visitors to help fund its work.
Not too far away, the Seven Mile Bridge is a stunning, and much needed, piece of architecture. It follows the route of the old railroad and is a vital lifeline to the rest of the Keys.
Key West itself is far removed from the USA we have come to expect. Everything happens on Key West Time and the laid back feel comes to the fore here. The island is surprisingly small and it is easy to walk from the Atlantic Ocean, marked by the USA’s southernmost point to the Gulf of Mexico, where the nightly sunset is greeted by fire-eaters, jugglers, preachers and singers at a gathering on Mallory Square. Before my arrival I had enjoyed a book about the spectacle written by part-time Keys resident Jon Breakfield. By chance I was able to meet some of the real-life subjects of his book, like Popcorn Joe, as he continued to ply his trade on the square. I don’t need to tell you what he sells!
I met up with one of the islands most famous residents too. David Sloan is a writer, historian and tour guide who oozes enthusiasm about the place. The fact one of his books is called “quit your job and move to Key West” and is pretty much autobiographical probably says it all. David is an expert on the islands oddest character, a stuffed doll called Robert. Legend has it the doll, which can be found in a glass case at Fort East Martello museum, is possessed. It is said to play tricks on visitors, particularly if they do not ask its permission to take a photograph. Stories abound of broken cameras and odd occurrences after seeing the doll. This particular writer didn’t take any chances!
Due to its size, the best way to get around Key a West is on foot. That way, you can get to see the famous wild chickens roaming around, you can try fresh coconut water direct from the source and you can simply soak in the atmosphere of this truly unique place. You can also get to stop by the original Margaritaville, where Jimmy Buffet songs blast out from the famous bar & eaterie. So whilst I may not have found Kokomo, I did discover it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere!
United Airlines fly from Belfast to Newark where you can connect with flights to Miami. After that, the best way to explore the Keys is to get in a car and enjoy the drive.