Deep inside the mangrove forest, the midges were biting. In eerie silence, we drifted through the snarled clumps of twisted roots in our kayaks while above us, spider crabs scuttled through the canopy. Then one fell off. ‘Arrrrrghhhh!’ screeched one of the girls, frantically brushing her shoulder. Captain Bill, our guide, broke into a belly laugh, shaking his head before leading us back towards the clear open sea surrounding Big Pine Key and the scorching Florida sun.
The Florida Keys, as we memorably discovered during our kayaking trip, is a place where untamed nature and quirky little towns sit side by side. On the road traversing the Keys, from Key Largo in the north to Key West in the south, the verges are dotted by 1970’s-style neon and clapperboard signs – many of which point to dolphin sanctuaries, bird sanctuaries and even a coral rehabilitation unit. It’s Back to the Future and Pirates of the Caribbean with an added dash of Greenpeace. And it’s very hard not to fall head over heels in love with.
For a start, there’s the beaming Caribbean sun which shines down on the Keys almost all year round, making boat trips, barbecues and kayaking available just about every single day. Then there are the locals, always ready with a grin and a polite enquiry about where you’re from and whether you’re enjoying the Keys. It’s a far cry from the days when the Keys were the haunt of the real pirates of the Caribbean and more interested in smuggling than schmoozing. Best of all though, is the sheer unadulterated quirkiness which if nothing else, is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
This is, after all, the home of the Conch Republic – a tiny state centred around Key West that once, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, declared war on the mainland United States. It’s run by the Honourable Sir Peter Anderson, who from his Key West HQ, dispenses ‘passports’ and declares that his mission is to spread humour around the world. Then, there’s the terrifying ‘Robert the Doll’, the inspiration for the Chucky movies, who, from his display cabinet in the Fort East Martello Museum in Key West, curses any who fail to pay him enough respect. If you don’t believe it, just take a look at the wall behind – it’s festooned with letters apologising for not taking him seriously enough and listing the bad luck that has ensued. Like Sir Peter, he’s a Key West institution and one that you certainly won’t find anywhere else.
What you also won’t find anywhere else is the former home of Ernest Hemingway – complete with a colony of six-toed cats – and a festival that happens every single day of the year. That festival is the Sunset Celebration on Mallory Square and the place we headed to first, after arriving, still nursing the odd mosquito bite, from Big Pine Key. Down on the quayside, flanked by bobbing boats and a slowly sinking sun casting rosy rays across the darkening sea, were rows of stalls selling everything from homemade lemonade to (excellent) coconut-scented salt scrub and entertainers drawing oohs and aahs from the crowds courtesy of virtuoso fire-breathing displays. It’s relaxed, funny and lasts until the sun dips below the horizon, at which point the town’s bars await.
Our first stop was at the tiny Amigos Tortillas Bar, home of homemade ‘Butt Blaster’ hot sauce and some of the best Mexican food on the island. Across the road on Duval Street is Sloppy Joe’s, a favourite haunt of Hemingway’s, where we sipped frozen mojitos and the charmingly named frozen ‘Pain in the Ass’. Lovely though it was, the real late night highlight came the next day during an evening boat trip that combined snorkelling with champagne and curious local dolphins who splashed alongside the boat as we stared, entranced. But you don’t have to go as far down as Key West to see dolphins. The northernmost Key – and the largest – Key Largo has plentiful marine life of its own.
Of all the Keys, Key Largo is arguably the most laid back. It’s got a palm-fringed coastline, a rare sprinkling of icing sugar sand and the only undersea park in the USA. That park, the John Pennekamp State Park, might be a few miles off the coast but it’s well worth the boat ride thanks to its immaculate array of pink and violet coral and darting technicolour inhabitants. Back on shore, we retreated to the aptly named Sundowners for a last cocktail and slow sunset before making the long drive back to Miami and the plane home. We sat lazily tucking into toothsome conch fritters and blue crab cakes while watching a group of children throwing chum to the dangerous looking – and vast – tarpon thrashing about in the water below the dock, lucky locals all. With this to look forward to after a long afternoon at sea, it’s amazing that visitors ever manage to leave at all.
NEED TO KNOW…
Virgin Atlantic fly daily to Miami from London Heathrow. Prices start from £240 plus £357.65 tax. For more information please visit virgin-atlantic.com or call 0844 209 7777. RIH stayed at Ocean Pointe Suites (Key Largo, from $129 per person, providentresorts.com), Parmer’s Resort (Little Torch Key, from $99 per night based on two sharing, parmersresort.com) and at the Key Lime Inn (Key West, from $139 per night, historickeywestinns.com). For more on the Florida Keys, see fla-keys.co.uk.