Getting a taste of the wacky, weird and wonderful that defines the Florida Keys
I am floating face down at the water's surface, looking through a watery window into the world below. The Florida heat beats down on my back. I dip just a few feet below to cool off with the sea. And as I do, out of nowhere, hard scales brush my leg as a goliath grouper the size of a small car moves into my personal space. He looks at me curiously and descends to the divers below. My new friend is here for lunch also known as Captain Slate's Critter Feed. And the master of ceremonies is my old friend, PADI Professional Dave Marcel. Dave positions himself in the sand in the middle of a circle of divers. He reaches his mesh-gloved hand into a bait bucket and pulls out endless amounts of squid to feed green moray eels, nurse sharks and, of course, this pushy goliath grouper. The grouper swallows his lunch in a single gulp. A nurse shark makes its way gracefully through the group. The divers carefully pet it, but when they notice the skin is not as soft as it appears, they pull their hands back in surprise. That doesn't stop them from caressing it again, pulling their hands back excitedly each time it passes. Bubbles of laughter explode around them.
A world-class dive destination just five hours down the road from my home in Orlando, the Florida Keys is where I go when I need to get my land-locked feet wet. On a Friday morning I'll jump in my old jeep and head south. By late afternoon, with the wind in my hair, I already feel like I've escaped. Just perfect. Welcome to the Conch Republic, I think. And my first stop is always Key Largo. Since doing my first open-water dive here over ten years ago, I've been exploring life below the surface. But this time I want to see what's going on up on land. So, I've hung up my fins and put on my Nikes to explore the best way I know by running.
Instead of gearing up, I tie up my Nikes and hit the pavement. Weaving my way from the Holiday Inn Key Largo Resort and Marina through the streets of Key Largo, my topside dive begins. A crab scampers across the road as I pass a tanned twenty-something guy slowly flip-flopping down the street a divemaster coming home from a morning trip. Farther up the road, I hit John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, an underwater and topside collection of reefs and trails. As I enter the park, a wooded road leads me toward the water. A path opens off to the right, leading deep into the mangroves. It's like the thermocline during a dive: the deeper I go in, the cooler it gets. I want to go deeper and deeper, to the heart of the mangroves, but like a dive this adventure can't go on forever. There are more of the Keys to explore, and my next site, Islamorada, is waiting just down Highway One.
With my road-trip co-pilots, Lucy and Jennica, I decide to stop in one of the multi-colored "mom and pop" joints that line the strip on the way to Islamorada. We come upon Snapper's Waterfront Saloon and pull up some stools at the bar for lunch: conch chowder and a piece of Key lime pie. Who makes the best Key lime pie is debatable across the Keys. But for the moment, this one is at the top of our list. And the bar-by-the-water view isn't bad, either. Tarpon swarm patiently under the dock, waiting for their lunch, which is located in a gumball machine on the deck. We pay the 25 cents, toss the food in the water, and wait for the feeding frenzy to begin. The food, fit for a goldfish, doesn't seem to impress the tarpon. So we continue offering handful after handful.
"You guys heading south?" asks a man laughing at our escapades. "You should stop by Robbie's. You'll really get to feed some tarpon there."
And we're off, deeper down Highway One.
After crossing another of many two-lane bridges, we hit mile marker 77.5 and Robbie's. A carnival-like affair awaits: cowboy hats, beads and trinkets hang off wooden stands, waiting to decorate the next passer-by. We walk through a small shop and come out the other side onto a dock filled with the yelps and screams of soaked vacationers.
The smell of fish is strong. For three bucks we buy a bucket of tarpon food dead fish. We've entered the major leagues of tarpon feeding. We walk towards the end of the crowded dock, take our place on the wooden deck and hold the dead fish as close to the surface as our bravery will allow. The churning water rumbles below us. We wait in anticipation.
A large tarpon leaps out of the water and grabs the lifeless fish out of Jennica's hands. Splash! We hear a blood-curdling scream as the tarpon's mouth overestimates its bite by about half a foot. Jennica starts to giggle and, within seconds, we are holding our stomachs in gut-wrenching laughter. For the next few weeks, Jennica proudly shows off the tarpon scar on her wrist.
Drenched from our attempts to tame the tarpon, we jump back into the car and drive south toward Cheeca Lodge and Spa. We roll up the long, winding drive amid well-manicured greens. Healthy, sun-kissed travelers roam the grounds in search of their next tennis match, round of golf or final hour of the day by the water. We are a bit out of place in our tarpon-soaked clothes, but no one seems to mind. It is calm here, full of the peace that comes with pampering.
A single night is not enough time to take in all of the amenities of the Cheeca Lodge, so I figure I'll have to find an excuse to bring myself back. After sleeping in a bed so big it would make a sumo wrestler feel like Tom Thumb, I climb my way out. It is time to continue south, towards Key West.
After the drive, Jennica and Lucy decide to cool off by the Westin Key West Resort's pool. On the balcony of our suite, a pile of guidebooks is scattered at my feet. Feeling a bit overwhelmed by how much there is to see, I tie up my running shoes and head toward the first street that catches my eye a well-kept walkway hidden off the main road. It takes me down a street lined with historic homes, each designed with a unique personality. The landscape is jeweled with tall trees and clothed in green grass fit for royalty. I pass the Harry S. Truman Little White House, the late President's tropical escape. The front porches of many of the homes are lined with pillars reaching up to second-story balconies. Daisies and daffodils fill the flowerbeds. I can imagine a time before air conditioning when families of summers past sat on their porches and waited for the occasional breeze to cool them down. Like ladies, these homes have grown old with grace. They have withstood hurricanes and writers, and they still stand with dignity. I can only begin to imagine the stories they must hold inside their walls.
Running back towards the water, I find my feet moving automatically toward the boardwalk and the magnetic pull of the sea. I've run right into Mallory Square, the place to be at sunset and, sometimes, where the wild things are: fire-eaters, fortune-tellers and magic-men. A couple holds hands, strolling down the promenade. A young father counts to three as he takes a picture of his family. The smell of conch fritters fills the air. A little girl with freckles takes a bite from her snow cone and smiles up at me with her syrup-stained face. I run past patio bars and, with each bar, a new crowd of friends in laughter. Just like diving, there is much to see when you take the time to notice what is right in front of you. And, just like road trips, you never know what waits for you when you step outside your front door.
Special thanks to Captain Slate's Atlantis Dive Center (www.captainslate.com), Cheeca Lodge (www.cheeca.com), Dive Key West (www.divekeywest.com), The Florida Keys History of Diving Museum (www.divingmuseum.com), Holiday Inn Key Largo Resort & Marina (www.holidayinnkeylargo.com), Horizon Divers (www.horizondivers.com), Lazy Dog Island Outfitters & Outdoor Adventure Company (www.lazydogadventure.com), Mandy Brotherton at Cortex Resort Living (www.cortexcompanies.com), Ocean Divers (www.oceandivers.com), Oceanside Marina (www.oceansidemarina.com), Playa Cristal Resort (www.playacristal.com), Sea Dwellers (www.sea-dwellers.com) and The Westin Key West Resort & Marina (www.westin.com).