The Florida Keys: For Dreamers and Doers
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. (www.hemingwayhome.com)
“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 (www.africanqueenflkeys.com). 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. www.coralrestoration.org
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. www.fla-keys.com