Just driving off of US Highway 1, and driving onto Overseas Highway, or, in other words, definitely being on The Florida Keys islands, I was blinded by the contrast of the white clouds and the turquoise-blue water. Heaps of clouds, in the shapes of volcanoes, mushroom clouds, and strange faces. It seems as if this is the deepest sky in the world. With every passing bridge, connecting one island to the next, my wish to stop at every lamppost, to step out at every possible spot and breathe in the sea-salt scented air, doesn’t diminish. It seems hard to believe that I only found out about this place a few days before the planned trip to Miami, and ended up here like most of Miami’s holidaymakers – on a day when the big city is too hot, but here, there are only mild winds from the sea and the occasional pouring rain, but in the distance there are towers of white mountains once again. The Florida Keys are geographically the most southern location in the United States, and the climate here is tropical.
Looking at the brightly colorful fish, swimming at a distance nearly reachable by hand, I regret leaving my snorkeling equipment in the hotel and not planning to stay here for at least a few days, to have an opportunity to dive in and have a closer look at the fish. Fish, just like the blooming bushes and the people, are bright and colorful here. My equally colorful pink dress fits right in with The Florida Keys, but even truer children of nature have hats made of palm leaves, and flowers in their hair.
As I truly want to have a look at everything I come across, and then a bit more, I arrive at the target location – Key West – in five hours, instead of the planned three. On my way there I see Florida’s miniature deer wandering around a natural park, tiny crabs on empty beaches, as well as hordes of mosquitoes. What to do, what to see? Something to keep in mind are time limitations, since, as is often the case in southern regions, sightseeing locations don’t have long working hours and almost everything is closed by 4 PM, since the owners also want to enjoy the leisurely, refreshing evenings after the boiling heat!
I first head to a few locations where I feel a certain reverence. Firstly, Henry S. Truman’s winter residence – the Little White House, where he spent winters, and secondly the Hemingway Home. Walking from one museum to another, I feel as if I’m on the set of a film – a very wide street, the kind only seen in America, without a single car driving on it, tall palm trees, and….chickens roaming freely. Since there are almost no pedestrians around, the chickens just walk around, some throw a suspicious stare at me from nearby fences and others just continue to chew on weeds. They are also roaming by the local post office, at which, as it turns out – you cannot even purchase postcards with photos of the islands, but a wide variety of cards for birthdays and other holidays are available.
Next on the list of things to see is the home of Ernest Hemingway. Truth be told, Hemingway is not among my favorite authors, and the main draw of the visit is the opportunity to see polydactyl cats, which have more toes than normal cats. As it turns out, some have as many as seven per paw, but the World Record holder, which does not live here, has a combined toe-count of twenty nine. I was delighted, when they let me feed the cats from hand, as well as showed me the kittens, after which I silently stood and looked at the wonderfully blue swimming pool, besides which another cat was hiding under a bench. It almost seems that this kind of boiling heat sharpens all of the senses, and I smell every odor, feel every gust of wind and everything around me looks ten times more colorful than normal.
I often forget to eat on my travels. There are so many new impressions, and the list of sights to see is so long, that there is often simply not enough time for eating. That is, until the moment when my head starts to spin and the vacationers around me seem less like friendly faces, and more like people always getting in the way of pictures, distracting me from everything. I find a café at the end of Duval Street, and purchase a mojito. The appearance of the beverage is not impressive – three squished slices of lime, one leaf of peppermint, looking like it was picked last year, as well as a few other ingredients – but for a tired tourist, sugar and ice are the only things to make the drink taste wonderful and for the looks of the beverage to move to second priority. A man is sitting at the counter, next to me, and, with great appetite, devouring a large burger with crunchy French fries. The salty, warm scent is so prominent that I might as well be eating them myself. Some other travelers are sipping coffee (definitely Cuban), but most are having the same Mojito as I, because where else would they do so if not here, when Cuba is just 90 km away? I noticed cigar bars on street corners earlier, and the locals definitely have a large percentage of Cuban blood in their veins.
A storm is approaching, and I hurry to explore the rest of Duval street right until the port. Houses are showy, the windows have locks, and the occasional column can be seen, hinting at the prosperity of the property owner. It seems as if time has stopped here, and any moment a lady dressed in 1930s clothing will walk out from one of the houses and invite me in for dinner. One of my goals is to try the famous Key lime pie/tart, since I have heard that using the tiny, aromatic Key limes, which are only grown on these islands, the flavor is incomparably better than in the case of Persian limes. Key limes are used locally to make lots of things, including a semi-natural lemonade, candy, sauces, ice cream, as well as various cakes and pies. With and without gluten, with sugar, without, mango flavored, diet versions and of course the classic Key lime pie, using limes and condensed milk. As I tasted the first piece, I noticed that the sour filling melted pleasantly on the tongue. Truth be told, it is so sour, that it seems to barely belong in the dessert category, but then the taste buds get to the condensed milk and everything is in balance. It’s like a competition of sorts – what will you taste more of, the sour or the sweet?
This traditional dessert can also be prepared at home, making do with locally available limes:
For the crust:
1 package (around 200g) of cookies (locals use Graham crackers)
½ glass of sugar
4 tablespoons of melted butter
For the filling:
½ glass of freshly squeezed lime juice (around 4 limes)
2 teaspoons of grated lime peel, only the green part
4 egg yolks
2 cans of condensed milk
Cream, made into whipped cream, or leftover egg whites can be used
Mix all the ingredients of the crust together, squeeze them into a dish around 20 cm in diameter, bake in an oven for around 10 minutes at 180°C, until the base is a light brown color.
For the filling, whip the egg yolks until they become a thick mass with an even consistency. Add condensed milk, continue whipping, add half of the lime juice, proceed whipping, then add the other half, as well as the grated peel. As soon as this mass has an even consistency, pour it into the same dish as the base and bake it for a further 10-12 minutes. Decorate with whipped cream afterwards. In the original recipe, the filling would not be baked, since the sour lime juice mixed with condensed milk creates a rather sturdy surface when baked, however, in modern times the recipe has been altered to match safety and hygiene standards.
As the sunset approaches, the serene streets spring into life, masses of people flow towards Mallory Square. Apparently, the Crazy Cat Man of Mallory Square performs there, but this is not the case on the day of our visit. However, there are acrobats, a coconut vendor, and live music from the terraces of restaurants. The celebration of life is not limited to dry land – yachts and boats, lit up by bright lights, leave colorful trails in photographers’ nighttime photos, there’s laughter and glasses clinking all around, with thunder heard somewhere far away. Soon after the sunset, people gradually disappear from the city streets. Some walk into nightclubs, others, who plan to at least stay the night – to have dinner or sleep, but those who, like me, are here to explore the city in just one day, head back to Miami.
The last location to visit before leaving The Florida Keys islands, is the only café still open – the Cracked Conch Café, by a highway. There’s blues playing on the radio and American Football on the TV, mounted on the ceiling. All windows are wide open, and I can hear every car passing by. It is almost midnight, so there aren’t many. The air conditioning is buzzing, buzzing so loudly that it seems I’m aboard an airplane, a good old Fokker, about to take off. Every other air conditioning unit has a small light bulb on it, but none are lit. The only sources of light are a Tiffany brand wall lamp, and neon-lit advertisements for beer – Corona, Bud Light, Amstel light and Heineken. It appears this in an institution rarely frequented by foreigners, since there are no ads about hotels, or anything else of interest to tourists – just some local newspapers, as well as flyers about various services.
The table at which I am seated has a blue, oilcloth table-mat, with seashells and fish depicted on it. Every fork, knife and spoon is wrapped in a simple, white napkin. Newspapers on the table next to mine are held down by rocks. The air is hot, humid, and my sunscreen-covered-but-slightly-burnt skin is sticking to the oilcloth.
The waitress is of an indistinguishable race. Her hair is dark, russet colored, her eyes – big, almond-shaped, with pronounced freckles on her face. She’s very amiable, but isn’t sporting a synthetic, fake smile, as is common in many other places. Pride and confidence can be felt in her mannerisms and speech. She explains the strange names of food to me and recommends which additives to pick. I end up ordering a Double Baked Potato, which is boiled with its peel still on, then hollowed out, the filling mixed with spices and deposited back into the potato, which is then covered in cheese and put into an oven to be baked. Even though it seems there is not one new item in this entire building, everything is very well kept and restored. Even then, signs of exposure to moisture can be seen all around the structure, which can be felt with every breath taken here. The furniture in the restrooms is so rusty, that it seems the bolts holding it together could crumble at any moment. Still, everything is clean, very clean. And pink – a pink bottle, identical to the mustard bottles outside the restrooms, except containing liquid soap. The toilet paper in the stalls is also pink. Tiles by the sink – pink, with cupcakes on them.
The café is about to close in a few minutes, so all the tables aside from mine already have the chairs set upside-down on them. As I leave, the bartender and waitress also depart. The windows are left wide open, and the air conditioning is left to compete with the cicadas for which one can make a louder noise.
This last location, after which I wave goodbye to The Florida Keys islands, is an opportunity to fully understand the bouquet of experiences that you can feel on these islands, and especially Key West. It is like a country within a country, case in point – The Conch Republic, a city on Key West that proclaimed itself an independent micro nation in 1982. as a form of protest. Everyone is speaking English, there are Americans from every state, as well as other tourists all around, but there’s a feeling that never leaves your mind – Cuba is nearby not just geographically. It’s closer to the heart, too.
The nearest airport is in Miami, tickets to which from Europe are often the cheapest available. My trip included a several day layover at Miami, then a week at Curaçao island and a couple of days in New York after that. The tickets were purchased during a FTB Latvia sale, and cost 600 euro for a round trip, for one person. Often the first flight in such trips is not from Riga, and this was not an exception – we flew out from Tallinn, therefore a bus ticket and a night at a hotel had to be added to the travel costs. The flight back was to Riga.
Car Rental and Paid Roads
Car rental is cheap in the US – around $30 per day. I used http://www.netflights.com/ for booking, and the cheapest car was an Alamo, with all necessary insurance already included. We chose a slightly bigger sedan – Ford Fusion. When booking a small car, there is the risk that there won’t be enough space for all the suitcases. Gas was also cheap, around $3 per gallon (3.78l). You can also read my article on how to rent and drive the cars in the USA.
There are very many paid roads in Florida, and my observations lead me to believe that avoiding them completely is impossible. We used the Toll Assistant paid service – for $2.95 per day, the option to not pay anything on the spot, and instead be billed for using the roads later. If I am not mistaken, the total bill of Toll Assistant never went higher than 20$. It is important to note that the $2.95 per day doe not equal an unlimited pass to drive on as many paid roads as desired, never paying extra. This fee is only for the option of not having to pay on the spot, so you can drive on the fastest lane instead of stopping to pay (although the car will be photographed every time, regardless). In Miami, in many cases there wasn’t even a separate lane to pay on the spot with cash or card, so not paying $2.95 a day is not really even an option. Afterwards, all of these expenses will be billed to your credit card. When we last rented a car in the US, in Virginia, there was already a new system – we were given a special device, which registered all paid roads. With this device equipped, the car was not being photographed anymore. It is possible that since then, this option is available elsewhere.
I noticed that in the Miami area, the variety of items in stores was very good, and Florida in general is a very good state for going shopping. You can read more about shopping in the US in the article “How to shop in the USA”, where the best shopping strategies are described in much detail.
Staying the Night
Since I had several Expedia Best Price Guarantee coupons saved up, I put them to use and booked a hotel trough Expedia. It is possible to explore The Florida Keys in one day, from Miami and back, but I definitely wish I could have stayed in Key West for at least one more night. The Florida Keys are also great for beach holidays and diving, which is another reason why it is worth it to stay for several days.