The only way to see the Keys is the Heming way!! - Key West, FL
Key West, FL
So, after 18 days and 6800-odd miles we arrived in Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades) USA. The clocks had gone back 5 times in 7 days. That meant 5 extra hours in bed!! We thought as this is the ship's inaugural crossing and first time to Ft. Lauderdale we would be greeted by a brass band and treated to a firework display. The Royal Princess came along side at just after 3.30am. No brass band. No fireworks. The local elementary school band and a roman candle would have sufficed! Nothing too flash. The only noise that could be heard was the snoring from where the ships bulkhead was missing a rivet or two outside Linda’s cabin!!! (she obviously had no luck with the Maintenance Department!!)
Speaking of the clocks going back another bizarre thing happened. We had to be out of the cabin by 8am so after our final breakfast aboard the vessel at 7:15 we headed back to cabin E204 for the last time to gather our things when I overhead someone on their mobile phone: '…so it’s just gone 9 o’clock now…’
‘Well he’s got that wrong for a start’, I said to Roisin as I looked up at the ships clock.
‘Look, even the ship’s clock says 9!’ glancing down at my wristwatch.
My wristwatch said 9:01. I remember putting the alarm clock and my wrist watch back 1 hour before going to bed. So why did the alarm ring 1 hour later? When I got back to the cabin I checked both the time on the clock and the time that the alarm was set for. Both were correct. To this day we have no idea how we managed to put the clocks back but still lose an hour!!
While we have managed to slip in to a routine when it comes to breakfast, for the past week, Roisin has discovered a new breakfast item; Biscuits and gravy!! Sounds disgusting, I know!! Who’s ever heard of ‘gravy’ for breakfast!! We have to remember we’re on an American ship so some things are lost in translation. An American biscuit is made from soft dough rather than the hard dough used to make European biscuits (Cookies). These biscuits have the texture and consistency of scones. The gravy on board took the guise of a thick sauce. Flavours varied between bacon, cheese and brown flavour!!! Quite a tasty alternative to cornflakes, toast and marmalade!!
Disembarkation was the usual chaos. Depending on circumstances dictates your time slot for disembarkation. Despite changing our schedule time for disembarkation from 10:45 back to 10:10 we didn't actually leave the ship until 11:00. Refreshments are available in all lounges while waiting.
After passing the ‘not on America’s most wanted list’ test by offering up our finger prints and mug shot we cleared immigration and took a cab to the car hire office at Ft. Lauderdale airport. The fare on the taxi meter said $13.25 so I gave the driver $15. He looked at the 2 bills as if to say: ‘What the f…’ then looked down at me and say ‘$18 minimum!!!’
It was my turn to say: ‘What the f…’ but for a couple of dollars I couldn't be bothered so took the money back and gave him a 20. Taxi drivers, eh?? Don’t get me started!!!
We invested in hiring a GPS satnav and decided to upgrade the car so both suitcases would fit in the trunk. What I didn't know was that when I came face to face with the vehicle I realised I had just chosen to drive the Death Star. Usually when I have to climb stairs to get in to a vehicle I’m greeted by cabin crew and have to show a boarding card!!
It took a while to get used to but after a few wrong turnings and plenty of SatNav auto voice saying: ‘Recalculating’ and one case of ‘turn around when possible’ I managed to find the correct freeway.
As we headed South the terrain changed and became greener as we drove along Interstate #1 bisecting the Western perimeter of the Everglades National Park. Roisin pointed out a yellow diamond road sign warning the motorist of alligators crossing. Further along, a similar sign but with a picture of a deer. Despite the warnings we saw neither an alligator nor a deer. Perhaps the alligators were sleeping after a tasty deer soufflé!!
90 miles and 2 hours later we were turning in to Ocean Pointe apartments. Many of these apartments are privately owned and rented out through an agency. The complex was a myriad of narrow roads and apartment blocks. The roads were lined with boats and launches of differing shapes and sizes. These outnumbered cars by about 5 to 1.
The apartment block looked like a 70s tenement that wouldn’t look out of place in a London suburb. Our apartment was on the 2nd floor and as we opened the door we entered a narrow hallway that opened out in to a large living room with a kitchenette attached. The aircon unit was already pumping out lovely and welcoming cool air to counteract the humid Florida temperature. The balcony was overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. I looked out to the horizon and thought of the past 7 days. We had crossed the World’s 2nd biggest ocean and have a certificate to prove it!!
The Florida Keys are a coral archipelago that stretch from the south eastern tip of the Florida peninsula and extend 110 miles in a gentle arc south-southwest and then westward to Key West, the westernmost of the inhabited islands. The islands lie along the Florida Straits, dividing the Atlantic Ocean to the east from the Gulf of Mexico to the west
Tavernier is about 15 miles past one of the more famous Keys; Key Largo. After spending a relaxing afternoon and evening the next day we headed down to the most famous and most westerly point of the Keys, Key West.
The journey was not an unpleasant 94 miles and 2 hours. It was impossible to take a wrong turning as there weren't any other turnings to take!! For many stretches of the route you are only metres away from both the Atlantic AND the Gulf of Mexico. Our journey took us across the aptly named 7 mile bridge. This connects Marathon to the Big Pine Keys and has been featured in movies such as Arnold Schwartzenegger’s True Lies.
The name Key West is derived from the Spanish Cayo Hueso, Bone Island. The original inhabitants were native Indians who used the Keys to island hop across to Cuba. Key West is actually nearer to the Cuban coast (90 miles) than to the US coastline (110 miles). The Cuban tribe would also island hop. The tribes would meet in Key West and then it would ‘kick off’!! The fierce Indian left their enemies bones to bleach in the wilderness naming the island Cayo Hueso. Over the years ‘Hueso’ was anglicised to ‘West’
Many of the residents of Key West originate from the Bahamas and are known as Conchs (pronounced 'conks') On 23rd April 1982, The Florida Keys declared independence from the USA and although as a tongue in cheek gesture, the Keys have been known as the ‘Conch (Conk) Republic ever since. I wonder if the leader of the Key West Council is known as the Big Conk!!!
Although the island is only 4 miles long by 2 miles wide, the best way to see Key West in a short time is by either the orange hop on-hop off trolley bus or as we did, the conch train.
The mini train (known as Le Petit Train in Cannes!!) meanders up and down and back and forth the narrow streets of Key West, Our driver, Bob doubled up as a tour guide and provided us with many interesting facts and stories. The excursion took 90 minutes including 4 stops where you could alight and visit one of the nearby attractions. The Conch trains run every 20 minutes.
Our journey started at mile marker zero. Because many highways are long beyond normalness locations are identified by a mile marker. For example, yesterday we ate at an Italian restaurant that was located on US #1, the Eastern Highway. Now as this road stretches from Key West (mile marker 0) to Maine (mile marker 2000), you can see why it is easier to say a restaurant is situated on US #1 at mile marker 95.3.
The tour took us to the Southern most tip. Bob pointed out the white sandy beach yet hardly any waves at all despite looking out to the Atlantic Ocean. With the calm water gently lapping against the shore it felt more like looking out upon a Great Lake. The reason for the lack of waves is due to a reef 5 miles out to sea. This breaks the waves before they hit land. However, you need waves to create sand. The surface of the shoreline should be hard coral, shells and shale. The sand is shipped in from the Florida beaches as and when required. So, if you find yourself in the enviable situation of running on to a beach in Florida and fall down a hole, you’ll know why!!!
The Conch Train introduced us to Hemingway and Truman and taught us about the brave ‘wreckers’, cigar barons and sponge magnets. There are 4 official stops on the tour. We decided to break up the tour with a stop at Ernest Hemingway’s home.
Ernest Hemingway was an American author and journalist. His life of adventure and his public image influenced later generations. Hemingway produced most of his work between the mid-1920s and the mid-1950s, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. He published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works. I have read a few of Hemingway’s novels in preparation for this visit. For whom the bell Tolls and A farewell to Arms are two of his most known works and both made in to movies. I find his writing an acquired taste. In one particular sentence in one of his novels I counted the word ‘and’ 21 times. I was always told at school never overuse this word to join sentences. Instead use shorter sentences. If I used this style of writing it would be considered a grammatical nightmare. When Hemingway uses this style it is considered ‘genius’!!
The house gave a very accurate insight to his private life. His personal touches are still evident throughout the house. Many of the unique furnishings are European antiques collected during his life in Europe. These are contrasted by the mounts and pelts he collected during his safaris and hunting expeditions in Africa.
One bizarre feature ‘wandering’ the grounds of Hemingway’s home is the 50 or so polydactyl cats. These are cats that have either 6 or 7 toes on each paw. It is said that all these cats are direct descendants from Hemingway’s own cat ‘Snowball’.
After the diversion to Hemingway’s house we picked up the Conch train and after another 30 minutes riding through Historic Key West we came to the end of our tour.
We walked don’t Front street and passed the mile marker zero for the Eastern Highway. I think they should rename this route in honour of the great write and call it the Eastern Hemming Way!!!
On the way back to the car we took a small detour. Just behind Front Street in a leafy avenue lies the Truman Little White House. The building was built in 1890 and has hosted extended stays of US pioneers such as Thomas Edison and has been used by 6 American presidents of which Harry S Truman spend 175 days of his presidency here. Truman was arguably the best president American has known having to deal with the atomic bomb, the rebuilding of Europe, the Palestine question, Civil Rights issues and the Cold War during his term. I can picture him now in the Oval Office facing many difficult decision and as he looks up from his desk, his eyes focus on the only words of comfort: ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps!!!’
We went back to Front Street. When I say back to Front I don’t mean the street was back to front. That would be silly! That would be like cars that drive on the pavement and people walk in the road. Mind you, I’ve probably described any street in Malta!!! Mind you, in a country that drives on parkways and parks on driveways nothing surprises me!!
We met many people from Florida on this trip, most were elderly and had settled in Florida front all over the USA to see out their retirement. All said the same thing; a sunset over the Florida Keys is a spectacle not to be missed. We drove back from Key West as dusk fell. As the setting sun was behind us, I kept looking over my shoulder but could see nothing special that I couldn’t see anywhere else in the world.
We crossed over 7-mile bridge and as the sun was nearly over the horizon, we pulled in to a parking lot. As I exited the car and turned to face the sunset my breath was taken away by the numerous shades of red and orange emanating from beyond the Keys. So vivid. I have seen sunsets over the South Pacific and the Caribbean but this image will remain with me for a very long time. A bunch of octogenarian Floridians weren’t wrong!!