FEBRUARY 5, 2012
Jacaranda Passage Note #44: Florida - Everglades and the Keys
It looks as if 2012 will be a year of far-reaching travel for Chuck and me - both on and off Jacaranda. More about our adventures in future posts. But here’s the report from the first trip of the year:
Most of my visits to Florida have not been pleasant ones. This last time, in January, having had to be in West Palm Beach, Chuck and I decided to see if Florida could redeem its image in our eyes so we went looking for some of the best the state has to offer.
Driving south from Miami, we set out to explore The Everglades and the Florida Keys, anticipating unique ecosystems and island life....both animal and human. The weather was a perfect temperature, no mosquitos, and not a whole lot of people! A great ambiance!!
Everglades National Park - Unique and Struggling to Survive
We were not disappointed by the third largest National Park in the U.S. In fact, we were enamored. It lived up to the preconceived images we had in our minds thanks to TV nature shows and National Geographic articles....all encompassing vistas of blue skies, miles of tall grass shimmering in the breeze, lots and lots of birds, lots and lots of alligators, and the shy and elusive manatee.
On the way south, before entering the Park, we turned off the Florida superhighway and made an obligatory stop at the famous “Robert is Here” landmark fruit stand to look at all the exotic offerings like monstera deliciosa, caimito, sapodilla, carambola, atemoya, canistel, mamey, and tamarind. We bought an ugli fruit, tasted 12 different honeys, and were tempted by a black sapote milkshake that tastes like chocolate pudding.
Alligators yawned, sunned themselves, swam, and congregated right in front of us along the banks of the waterways, some almost within an arm’s reach. Turn the corner around tall clumps of sawgrass and you come upon all manner of herons and egrets stalking their prey in the reeds. Anhingas, black cormorant-like birds, were everywhere - drying their wings, fishing, and tending their nests in pairs (it was breeding season and the males had beautiful turquoise rings around their eyes). White Ibis flew overhead. An occasional hawk was spotted. A colorful purple gallinule hopped along the pads of spatterdock.
We watched enviously as kayakers and canoers glided down small, scenic rivulets, swallowed up silently by the walls of tall grasses. A totally tranquil scene devoid of alligator wrestlers, airboats, and Bigfoot hunters (the more eccentric side of the Park).
Further south, we reached the Flamingo Visitor Center - located in the most isolated part of the park on the shores of Florida Bay. We heard the familiar call of ospreys as they floated overhead on the thermals - bird calls we normally associate with the sound of Baja, Mexico. There were more of these “fishing eagles” than we had ever seen in one place and we counted at least 5 nests, some with chicks in them. Flamingo has a small marina where I glimpsed my first Florida manatees (4 of them)...or what you could see of them....little black nostrils and dark leathery backs poking out of swirls of muddy brown water.
I took an afternoon boat ride out into Florida Bay past large flocks of white pelicans congregating on exposed tidal flats. The boat captain showed me a chart of the area and I was surprised to see how shallow it was--drab olive green water punctuated with mangrove islands and sand bars. The chart was marked with a depth of “2” here or a “3” there. Fathoms I assumed (a fathom is 6+ feet) but he told me, “No, that indicates the depth in FEET. It’s low tide now. See how the exposed bottom of the bay is cut up like ribbons and crisscrosses? Those are boat propeller markings from drivers who had no local knowledge of the Bay.”
“The Glades” is our only national park to hold 3 world designations: International Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site, and Wetland of International Importance. But the future of this special ecosystem is uncertain; the Everglades National Park was created in 1947 specifically because it was already threatened back then. The Park competes with agricultural and urban demand for a finite water supply. Water management is the key to its survival. As the Park literature states: “Fresh water flowing into the park is engineered. With the help of pumps, floodgates, and retention ponds along the park’s boundary, the Everglades is presently on life support, alive but diminished.”
Florida sure knows about palliative care - for its massive geriatric population.... and it seems for its environments too.
Tropical Road Trip through the Keys - Key Limes and Conchs
Our guide book extolls: “Head out to the Keys and youll meet drag queens working as insect exterminators and islands named No Name inhabited by miniature deer. All of this delightful sense of place is ensconced within considerable natural beauty: .... emerald islands scattered over a teal sea.”
One of the highlights of Key Largo in the Upper Keys is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, known for wonderful diving and snorkeling. We had hoped to stop and get into the water there and maybe even get a view of the sunken Christ of the Abyss but unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate that day, so we passed it by.
We also passed on staying at the Jules Verne Underwater Lodge at $500 per person per night, although we could have visited for $125 a person (diving of course).
We stopped overnight in Key Largo at the Rock Reef Resort and enjoyed walking around the landscaped grounds which included a nice view of Florida Bay. One of the best finds was a little diner named Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, where we had a great homey breakfast surrounded by locals. Our kind of place. Mrs. Mac’s specializes in key lime pies, one of the signature food items of the Keys. Some people pay $13.50 for one of their pies when they come into their shop, but there have been others who have paid upwards of $80.00. Our waitress, who could have been Mrs. Mac herself, explained that “we’ve shipped our key lime pies worldwide, like to nostalgic couples who have come here for their honeymoon and now want a pie to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary”.
Marathon is also home to the very informative outdoor ecological Crane Point Museum. And still, most of Highway 1 in the middle Keys is a wide spacious strip mall with kitschy manatee mailboxes and artsy tourist traps beckoning you with giant lobster sculptures (Rainbarrel Artist Village). But, finally, entering the Lower Keys and driving over the wonderful long causeway, Seven Mile Bridge, we could admire the Gulf of Mexico or Florida Bay on one side, and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. Now here’s some of the most beautiful vistas of turquoise waters featured on postcards! Built in 1938 by Henry Flagler to replace the Overseas Railroad, the bridge opened up the Keys to a population boom.
Quirky Key West - “Margaritaville” or the End of the USA
Key West reminded us of the colorful community of Provincetown on Cape Cod - sophisticated, artsy, eccentric, fabulous architecture, with a large gay population, plenty of local characters and great people watching. We tried to scratch the deep tourist veneer and get underneath the surface to discover an authenticity of Key West and how the “conchs” really live their lives but found we couldn’t penetrate it.....so we reluctantly resigned ourselves to being tourists and hit the highlights enumerated in our travel guidebook.
The first “Top 10 things to Do” was to take the kitschy little train tour around town to get oriented, and later (#2) to join everyone at sunset at Mallory Square (a must-see “circus-scene” with mimes, performers, and street vendors of all sorts) while viewing a glorious setting sun at the southernmost tip of the continental U.S. Never mind the rain and clouds, we gathered with the crowds anyway. But that’s as far as we went - we did not join them on the Duval Crawl - the movable party/bar scene that gives Key West its reputation as a Party Town. And you can’t leave Key West without seeing the legendary Hemingway House (the famous writer lived there during the 1930’s) with its historically appointed rooms and feline menagerie of descendants from Ernest’s six-toed cats!
We stayed at a beautifully restored bed and breakfast called the “Artist House” on Fleming St., a residential area within walking distance of lively Duval St. Within this historic district we spent many enjoyable hours just walking the streets and looking at the grand French-Caribbean and Spanish-revival homes with their tropical, lush landscaping.
Art galleries abound and we especially enjoyed the Lucky Street Gallery, Gallery on Greene, Cocco & Salem, South Pointe Gallery, Audubon House, and The Art Studios of Key West. We stopped in to the latter and toured some of the studios that were open on the upper floors. In the large open main floor space a class was making floor cloths and an art and poetry exhibit hung on the walls. Leonel Valle’s poetry (see below) gave us a hint of the elusive life of the locals which seems tied to the water.
All in all, for us, Key West is a charming place to visit once but we don’t feel the need to return any time soon. Especially since we’re not interested in fishing there which we were told is a major reason to experience the Keys: “You gotta get out on a boat” a local advised us.....and maybe you do.
Perhaps we’ll visit the Everglades again with a kayak one day..... if it still exists.
Inside, the Ernest Coe Visitors Center, like so many in the National Park system, gave us a good orientation to the ecology, geography, and origins of the Everglades....the “River of Grass”. (It is not a swamp - a better description is a shallow waterlogged prairie). Take a look at a map of the place and you will see words like marsh, hammock, slough, marl prairie, and mangrove.
A very short distance away, at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, was one of the most easily accessible trails for dropping directly into the Everglades experience with wildlife up close and plentiful. The scenic Anhinga Trail - a short, effortless boardwalk - was a photographer’s delight.
That’s the picture postcard vision we had before we started off on the 127 miles of Overseas Highway (Highway 1) the “tropical road trip of a lifetime”. But then we spoke to our well-travelled and sophisticated friend Kay in Boston. “What you’ll see for most of the drive down is low green tangly forests and trailer courts - pretty boring”, she said, dispelling our romantic notions. And she was right.
But to be fair you have to make a distinction between the Upper and Lower Keys. You don’t get views of the water unless you get off the highway in the Upper Keys. And there are no pretty sand beaches since mangroves grow right to the edge of the coast (the exception being Bahia Honda). The Lower Keys is a different story.
At Tavernier Key we visited The Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center (a totally volunteer effort) which housed some interesting injured and recuperating birds, mostly owls and raptors, in its dilapidated setting. Further south, one of the attractions on Islamorada Key was Robbie’s Marina where piles of vacationers pay to feed the giant tarpons that swam in circles around the docks - freely and in pens. It was entertaining to watch the tourists flinch when the big fish jumped out of the water to grab the sardines dangling from their fingers while fighting off the advances of plucky pelicans stopping at nothing to intercept a free meal from the big fat tarpons.
At Marathon, the halfway point of the Keys, we went on a tour of an amazing Sea Turtle Hospital, complete with its own ambulance. Housed in an old motel, the main building contained an emergency room and state of the art surgical center with x-ray machines and stainless steel tables that would put most inner city hospitals to shame. Convalescing patients had their own private temporary natatoriums while permanently injured turtles adopted the motel’s swimming pool as their new habitat.