A paradise known as “Shangrila” was immortalized in song during the 1950s and was surely the basis for many dream trips. According to a more recent song by the Beach Boys, however, today’s dreamland is often referred to as “Kokomo.” It is supposed to be a tropical paradise that encompasses many of the Caribbean islands, including the Florida Keys. So, when listening to the words of the song, one automatically conjures up visions of white sand beaches loaded with bikini-clad sun worshipers. That scene may be true in some of the Caribbean islands, but not in the Florida Keys!
One of the first things a visitor asks after traversing several miles of the Overseas Highway is, “Where are the beaches?” The Keys however, are formed from build-ups of coral or limestone, and are surrounded by miles of shallow flats in every direction that are protected by a barrier reef seven miles offshore on the Atlantic side. Therefore, any surf or sand is dissipated long before it reaches the shores. To enjoy the real beauty of Florida’s “Islands in the Stream”, which have been described as dangling from the tip of the peninsula like a loose thread from the toe of a sock, one must don a mask, snorkel and flippers to become a part of this unique environment.
The Keys actually start in Florida Bay with Soldier Key and the Ragged Keys, which are only 12 miles south of Miami. Because of the popularity of Bogart’s 1940’s movie by the same name, Key Largo is recognized by most to be the first of the Keys. One can still sit and sip a brew on a stool once occupied by “Bogie” at the famous Caribbean Club and watch a magnificent sunset across Blackwater Sound.
More than a thousand incongruous parcels of land make up the Florida Keys, and many of those intricate clots of mangrove and coral are connected by the Overseas Highway, which follows the roadbed of Henry Flagler’s old railroad hurtling from island to island for almost 150 miles from the mainland to Key West. This picturesque thoroughfare passes by blue-green lagoons shaded by palm trees and overhanging mangroves. A visitor might see a plethora of flora and fauna, including white herons, roseate spoonibills, pelicans, ospreys or even one of the endangered Key deer.
Quality lodging in the Florida Keys is often hard to obtain, and should be an important consideration before departing. Those who go to the Keys unprepared or uninformed may end up in an unpleasant environment. Experience can be a harsh teacher in paradise
A New Orleans-style night life awaits visitors in the old downtown section of Key West, which at one time was Florida’s largest city. Today, historic buildings and forts, including the famous Conch Train, Hemingway’s house and its cats and Mel Fisher’s treasures delight visitors, but very little can top the circus atmosphere of sunset watching from the old wharf at Mallory Park.
Describing the Florida Keys as a fabulous tropical paradise barely touches on the more than 500 species of fish that inhabit its blue-green waters and the host of tropical birds, animals and other colorful creatures that flit about the sunlit coral. These tiny spits of land, with old Spanish names like Matecumbe, Bahia Honda and Boca Chica, should rank among the best places on the globe to get away from the winter cold and escape reality for awhile!