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Kirsten Ferguson

Living in the Pastels
By Kirsten Ferguson

Enjoying the many sensory delights of Florida’s Keys

Palm trees make everything look better. That was my first observation after stepping off the plane in Miami several weeks ago. The sight of coconut-bearing tropical fronds was enough to lift the spirits of a Capital Region resident numbed by winter’s drab skies and monolithic snowbanks. Salsa music, too, makes everything seem better. That was my second observation, made as my friends and I drove south from Miami in a rental car to the sound of festive Calypso and mambo broadcast from Miami’s Latin-music radio stations.

We were headed toward the Florida Keys, but in southern Dade County we saw a highway sign advertising the Monkey Jungle. As a kid, someone had given me a souvenir booklet from the primate attraction. It showed chimpanzees engaged in various fun-time activities: driving miniature convertibles, playing grand piano, macking in Elvis sunglasses and jumpsuits. I’d never been to the Monkey Jungle, but at the time it seemed like the coolest place in the world. We pulled off the highway, only to find that the Monkey Jungle is too ecologically minded to be dressing chimps in little outfits these days. Just as well, I guess.

Now a breeding sanctuary and research “biopark,” the Monkey Jungle fences in its visitors, allowing the primates to scamper free in the simulated-rain-forest canopy. As we walked through the park, spider monkeys overhead commandeered little buckets on chains, using the contraptions to greedily haul up dried-fruit booty that we had purchased at the entrance. Though the Monkey Jungle also houses parrots, iguanas, and even sloths that have been confiscated from illegal owners by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the primates still run the show. Outside a den of gibbons, a child stuck a toy light-saber sword though the fence. Justice was served: The possession was immediately snatched and rendered to bits by a playful group of primates.

The Monkey Jungle detour gave us a worthwhile glimpse of Redland, a South Florida agricultural region named for its red clay soil. As we drove past Redland’s scattered pink stucco houses and plains of “u-pick” fruit and vegetable fields, the advantages of a place with a year-round growing season became apparent. Sure, we have wonderful fresh produce here in the Northeast—for a couple of months. To a Northerner, fresh fruit in January is a minor miracle. We stopped at Burr’s Strawberry Farm on our way back to the highway. At the growers’ roadside stand, they sell fresh strawberry milkshakes and plump strawberries by the bucketload.

As we approached the Keys on South Dixie Highway (U.S. 1), flat farm fields and sprouting stucco housing developments gave way to the barren wetlands and mangroves of the Everglades. Hoping to sight a toothy alligator (probably quite unlikely from the road), I made do by spotting some of the amazing birdlife in southern Florida: ospreys, egrets, pelicans and great white herons (rarely seen anywhere else in the world) were everywhere.

For a visitor driving through the Keys for the first time, as I was, Key Largo provides the first view of the coral-reef islands. Seen from the overseas highway (again, U.S. 1) that links the island chain, Key Largo isn’t quite as romantic as one might imagine from its storied Hollywood connection: Motels, bait-and-tackle shops, convenience stores and RV parks line much of the route. As one progresses further into the Keys, though, the region’s charm reveals itself in the expanse of brilliant blue water that stretches endlessly on either side of the causeway, where fishermen line up along piers with their 10-foot poles. The predominance of pastel colors in Florida design, from the bright pink houses to the salmon sport shirts, once struck me as a lack of sophistication. Here I realized that the pastel spectrum of Florida’s manmade environment merely mimics its tropical landscape, from the turquoise water to the pink flamingo and the orange sunset.

Sittin’ pretty: a cat at Hemingway House.Photo by Kirsten Ferguson

We were staying in the town of Islamorada on Upper Matecumbe Key. “The number-one sport in the Keys is water sports,” blared a frequent advertisement on the radio. Grammatical awkwardness aside, the ad had a point: Maritime activities like sport fishing and diving were the main attraction in Islamorada. We visited while the Keys were suffering from an unusual cold snap, so we never ventured into the water beyond a rather unsuccessful jaunt in an overloaded pedal boat at low tide, which found us grounded on a reef while dodging perilous-looking sea urchins and lobsters.

Of note in Islamorada was the Islamorada Fish Company, a restaurant with tables along a pier where we sat outside watching pelicans swoop down to roost on the dock’s pilings. There we drank Bloody Marys and ate the best fresh seafood of a lifetime, from conch chowder (a Keys specialty) to raw oysters, and grilled dolphin fish and grouper.

On one of the coldest days to hit the Keys in 25 years (temperatures in the 40s), we ventured to Key West, about a two-hour drive from Islamorada. Key West’s omnipresent free-ranging chickens I had read about and was prepared for (“Chickens are welcome here” read a defensive sign outside one residence), but I hadn’t expected to be so enthralled by the architecture: beguiling 19th-century villas overrun by tropical vegetation.

We took a tour of the Hemingway House, the limestone manse where author Ernest Hemingway lived from 1931 to 1940 and penned many of his best-known tales about war (death), hunting (death), bullfighting (death) and fishing (death). Our tour guide, Lauren, a salty dog in a sailor cap and fisherman’s sweater who looked remarkably like Hemingway, led us through the house, proffering insights about Hemingway’s alcohol-fueled manic-depressive decline. Meanwhile, cats (61 feline descendents of Hemingway’s polydactyl cat Snowball roam free on the estate) snoozed in doorways, on the veranda, next to the pool and even smack in the middle of the Noble Prize-winner’s bed.

After an incomparable dinner of Cuban food at El Meson de Pepe’s Casa Cayo Hueso Restaurant, we were plotting how quickly we could return to Key West—for good. It could have been the mojitos talking. It also may have been geography: Something about finding yourself at the southernmost point in the continental United States lends itself to festivity, escapism and, well, the desire for permanent retirement. The place is full of content residents (transplants from other places, mainly) who seem to feel the same way. They have found their Shangri-la and they’ll never own a pair of shoes, other than sandals, again.

Getting There

Obviously, the fastest way to get to the Florida Keys is by plane; the current cheapest round-trip airfares from Albany to Miami (booking three weeks in advance) are $323.50 on Northwest, traveling during the week, and $373.50 on Delta when arriving/departing on the weekend. Car rental from Miami airport costs $22.99 a day for a Budget economy-sized car; $37.14 per day for a standard-sized car at Dollar Rent a Car.

Driving from Albany to Key West takes approximately 27 hours. Essentially, it’s I-87 to I-95 to U.S. 1, which takes you from Miami to the Upper Keys and ends at Key West.

You can also take Amtrak from Albany/Rensselaer to Miami. Sample fare: coach class one-way for $196; sleeper car one-way starting at $423. Average trip takes 31 to 34 hours.


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