in the Pastels
By Kirsten Ferguson
the many sensory delights of Florida’s Keys
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.
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)
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.
pretty: a cat at Hemingway House.Photo
by Kirsten Ferguson
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.
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