Despite mass evacuations in advance of his arrival, tropical storm Alberto didn’t end up being a particularly troublesome visitor. Travelers who chose to share their vacations with Big Al found him a tolerable travel companion, and enjoyed having Florida somewhat to themselves. Chief researcher Marilyn Terrell was on the ground with her family and sent this report:
As we breezed down the Overseas Highway toward Key West, traffic seemed mostly to be headed in the opposite direction, back northeast to Miami, many cars trailing boats. Did they know something we didn’t? We stopped at Mile Marker 90.1 in Tavernier for a famous fish sandwich at Craig’s Restaurant: fresh-caught grouper, blackened and grilled, served with cheese and tomato on toast—messy but delectable.
As we chowed down, the wind picked up and fat raindrops began to fall. My in-laws, hurricane veterans, pooh-poohed the dark clouds. And despite the dire predictions of eager TV weather forecasters breathlessly awaiting the arrival of the first tropical storm of the season, ‘Hurricane’ Alberto fizzled to a much-needed drizzle by the time we reached Key West.
We stayed in a pale yellow house with verandahs, ceiling fans, rocking chairs, and a white picket fence on Sunset Key, a small island in Key West Harbor that until 1994 was owned by the U.S. Navy and called, less romantically, Tank Island, because of the gigantic fuel tanks that dominated the place. Now it’s dominated by pastel-colored guest cottages (owned by Hilton) and vacation homes fringed by palms, hibiscus hedges, and frangipani trees. Reachable only by a launch that runs every half hour from Key West, the island allows no cars, just bikes and golf carts. There’s a restaurant (pricey), a pool, tennis courts and one of the very few beaches in Key West. The beaches down there are made of imported sand and crushed coral, ouchy on the feet, which is why so many people wear Crocs, those brightly-colored plastic clogs with the holes in them.
Our house was directly across the harbor from Mallory Square, where sunset revelers gather every evening, more to cheer the street performers—like Dominique and His Flying House Cats—than to watch the sun go down. Advantage to the off-season? No lines for post-sunset ice-cream cones.
Our final day in Key West was brutally hot, perfect for parasailing. Floating 600 feet (183 meters) up above Key West harbor felt like those flying dreams I used to have, where I would run across a field taking longer and longer steps until I was soaring effortlessly above it all. Up there, the air was cool and the mood serene, except for the antics of my 16-year-old son Owen, to whom I was tethered and for whom fun without danger is no fun at all. I was more interested in the view: We could see miles into the magical backcountry of Florida Bay, with its deep green mangrove islands scattered over endless glassy blue water, alternatively spearmint-colored in the shallow places, and light sandy brown over the flats, home to the elusive bonefish and tarpon that make my fly-fisherman husband dreamy-eyed.
Another advantage to off-season? You don’t have to make parasailing reservations hours or days in advance, but can walk along the dock and find a captain who’ll take you out. We went with Parawest Parasailing Adventures, a more laid-back operation than the bigger, more commercial outfits available, and one that seemed to give longer air time than most.
Key West has changed a lot since I used to go there in the late ’70s: cruise ships have replaced Navy submarines in the deep harbor, the funky houseboat squatters have been run out of town, national retail chains are rampant. But Key West Aloe is still there, selling its soothing potions, Key West Hand Print still makes its unique colorful fabrics, and the chickens still run wild in the streets. Hippies still ride their one-speed, hand-painted bikes around town. My favorite: a guy sporting a gray ponytail pedaling in slow motion on the bridge over Garrison Bight, wearing a t-shirt with the message "Rehab is for Quitters."
Ah, Key West!
- Nat Geo Expeditions