The Florida Keys: For Dreamers and Doers

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A string of tiny Floridian islands draws dreamers and doers. Jayne MacAulay can’t resist its pull


The sign over the small airport terminal at Key West, Fla., proclaims “Welcome to the Conch Republic.” Not the typically patriotic image one might expect on a tiny American archipelago only 140 kilometres from Cuba (nearer than Miami), but this is America with a difference. Beneath the veneer of holidaying fun-seekers – more than three million a year – you’ll encounter some plucky ones who stayed when they discovered a personal passion in this carefree place.

Key West, the largest city, flamboyantly declares itself “close to perfect, far from normal.” It has wonderful beaches, reefs for diving and snorkelling, golf courses – and about 85 bars, most clustered in and around Duval Street. Ernest Hemingway, who famously favoured his friend Sloppy Joe’s bar, set up house with his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, in Key West in 1931, then went off to cover the Spanish Civil War with war correspondent Martha Gellhorn in 1937. Miffed, Pauline replaced his boxing ring with an Olympic-size swimming pool, for a cool $20,000. His “last red cent” is set in the patio cement beside it. He worked on For Whom the Bell Tolls here, in an enviable, airy retreat over the original carriage house. The many descendants of his cat infamous for his multiple toes welcome hundreds of visitors a day. (

Cats of a different kind appear at the Pier House Resort and Caribbean Spa at the foot of Duval Street. Pianist and vocalist Larry Smith, who escaped New York City a decade ago, effortlessly performs as we have dinner in the Wine Galley Piano Bar. Then at least eight grey-haired gents arrive for Monday night’s jazz jam and blow the roof off. With a flugelhorn; alto, tenor and baritone saxophones; drums, guitar and Smith on electric organ, there’s more energy than a nuclear plant can emit. When another musician jumps up and adds a jazz harmonica to the vibe, Smith looks like he’s died and gone to heaven. This is not a gig to miss if you visit Key West on a Monday ( Neither is sightseeing from a hop-on/hop-off Old Town Trolley or eating Key Lime Pie on a stick at the sunset celebration at Mallory Square.

Richie Moretti, 69, of New Jersey bought the small Hidden Harbor Motel in Marathon, a city located mid-Keys, in the early 1980s after a stressful but successful 20-year career as a Volkswagen mechanic in Orlando and went from bugs to turtles. He kept saving creatures in the motel’s saltwater swimming pool, and soon local schools realized this was an educational opportunity. It was also the era of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the kids wanted to see turtles. To teach them about endangered sea turtles, Moretti had to become a turtle rehabilitator – pay for vet, medicines and food, then release them when healthy. (Ironically, Key West used to harvest turtles by the thousands to make soup.) Many of those kids are now adults who report or bring in ill or injured turtles for rescue.

“Chuffa-chuff, chuffa-chuff” sounds so out of time and place that you almost expect to see a snarky Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) giving a boozy Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) a hard time. And this is the sound of the authentic African Queen, the steam launch from the Belgian Congo featured in the eponymous movie of 1951  ( A century old in 2012 and lovingly refurbished, today it’s piloted past slick yachts and speedboats that line the Port Largo canals at Key Largo by Lance Holmquist, a California surfer-turned-genuine sea captain. He owns a pirate ship that’s moored just down the dock, as well as a schooner that he and wife Suzanne sail. A Scottish film editor, Suzanne enthusiastically helmed the first Humphrey Bogart Film Festival last May, a tribute to film noir hosted by Bogie’s son Stephen. Key Largo, in the upper Keys, owes its name to the 1948 film noir that starred Bogart and Bacall; scene-setting shots were filmed there, but the film was made in Hollywood. As the launch chuffs her way along the canal, I eye the wooden box on her prow. “Gordon’s Gin,” it reads. Perfect for Charlie. For Captain Lance? Not so much. He seems way too content to need a slug of gin.

“Hey, Lance,” some guy calls as we head down the canal, “how are you doin’?”

“I’m doing … TOOT! TOOT! … awright!” he and the Queen respond.

After disembarking, pay a visit to Coral Restoration Foundation Education Centre. Ken Nedimyer has created an inspiring project: see unique coral nurseries aimed at restoring damaged reefs.

And the Republic? The U.S. Border Patrol may have mistaken a laidback style for passivity in 1982 when it set up a roadblock on the mainland to check cars driving up from the Keys. Traffic jams hurt tourism, so the Conchs (a nickname for the islanders, pronounced “conks”) reacted with humour. They seceded from the Union, set up the Conch Republic and declared war. One minute later, they asked for a billion dollars in foreign aid and war relief. The roadblock disappeared, but Independence celebrations draw tourists each April, and Conch Republic passports are still available throughout the Keys.


Don’t Miss

Oil-rich Henry Flager spent a fortune on a railway to Key West by 1913; a 1935 hurricane destroyed most of it. Stay at his dream resort, Casa Marina A Waldorf Astoria Resort, a landmark in Key West since 1920.


Where do you plan to travel this year? Let us know in the comments!