I had a vision of the Keys as something like Hawaii but smaller and with rowdier parties. But for the most part, it was completely different than what I expected. First off, beaches are hard to come by. Instead the water’s edge is typically thick mangrove roots or long sea grasses washed up and piled in mounds. The ocean itself is as expected, with shallow turquoise waters glowing offshore. I end up driving the whole length of the Keys in one day. Mostly because it was pouring down rain. But also, there was more open space than I expected. A beautiful drive, but not a ton of stuff to do along the way - at least for a budget traveler.
But all that changes abruptly when you enter Key West, where the streets are packed full of restaurants and trinket shops and other stuff to do. I might have been prejudiced against Key West. I didn’t expect to like it. I figured it would be one big touristy party and that’s not exactly what I like. It didn’t help matters that a gigantic cruise ship was docked and the hordes of vacationers had spilled out onto the narrow streets. In my stubbornness I forgo the Hemmingway House and tour the Audubon House instead. It’s the same price, but you don’t get a tour guide telling you amusing stories about Hemmingway. Instead you’re left to wander alone. And there aren't any six-toed cats sleeping lazily about. And the thing that really infuriates me is that the house has nothing to do with James Audubon. Apparently, the only connection is that Audubon was staying at a house across the street and liked the garden of the “Audubon House” and borrowed some of their plants for his paintings. That’s it. He didn’t live there for even a day.
I walk along Duval street, eat lunch, meander around, things like that. But I’m sorry to say the appeal of the city is lost on me. It feels too packed. I can’t see the ocean. And when I wonder over to the dock the cruise ship blocks the view and vendors swoop in thinking I’m from the cruise and try to sell me stuff.
So I get out of there as fast as I can and drive back to my campsite. I had been resigned to forking over exorbitant sums for a hotel because the campsites were booked, but I drove into Long Key State Park around 10 am and got a “primitive” site for $8.13 a night! How can you possibly beat that? It was a pretty cool set up: right near the shore on a boardwalk platform with a covered deck.
It made me feel like I was trekking through the jungle studying botany or entomology. The only real downside (and it was a pretty big one) was that at dusk swarms of tiny biting gnats converged and feasted on any exposed flesh they could find. The little buggers were tenacious.
But with the money I saved I decided to rent a kayak the next day. I went to Curry Hammock State Park and circled around small Deer Key and followed an inlet under a tunnel of mangrove branches the park service had cut out so tourists could paddle around in a big circle. It was high tide so I had to lay back in the kayak to avoid being bonked in the head. It was a nice little adventure. Then I spent the day reading and sunbathing. I had the beach all to myself.
The next day I decide to treat myself again for my cleverness in finding the cheapest campground around. I go on a glass-bottom boat tour of John Pennekamp Reef State Park. The boat ride out to the reef takes awhile, so it’s fun to step outside once they pick up speed. Once we get there they let the boat idle while the guide points out all the different kinds of fish and coral we are seeing. We saw barracuda, a nurse shark, a huge centuries old brain coral, sting rays and swarms of all sorts of colorful fish.
On the way back I’m at the bow again letting the wind whip through my hair. For a split second I see something white dive underneath the keel - it’s the underside of a sea turtle trying to get out of our way. Seeing something amazing like that helps me realize that the real beauty of the Keys is in the ocean and mangrove inlets and that's how it should be experienced.