Date of Trip: December 2003
Every year, for the past 15 years, my family has traveled down to Cudjoe Key, Florida, a small isle 23 miles north of the oft-lame tourist mecca of Key West. The Florida Keys (see Beach Boys song) are a string of about 1700 islands (my last count); a smooth geographic continuation extending from the southern tip of the Florida mainland, connected by what basically amounts to one very long bridge. The southernmost point, located in Key West, is 90 miles from Cuba. I’ve heard rumors of a once-planned bridge connecting Cuba and the U.S. — a hair brain idea if I’ve heard one.
We always go down during the final week of December, a week often referred to as Christmas week by the gentiles.
Me mum usually books a plane (out of Philly or Newark) well ahead of time (eight months) in order to secure seats during the extremely busy Christmas week. And even then, as any traveler is likely to know, the planes are overbooked. You will be kept in a holding pen until a certain number of people relinquish their seats. It’s fun (sooooo fun!) to watch the escalation of the bribes being offered in exchange for taking a later flight. At a certain point, people begin clandestinely discussing the possibility of making the trade, and beady eyes commence darting about the concourse area looking for the slightest indication of desk-ward movement. In 1999, as the offer rose to $600 vouchers per sacrificed seat, my father and I felt we had no choice but to accept. We still, however, decided on a hard sell. In addition to the vouchers, we would require first class seat upgrades on the later flight. With minimal cajolery, we transformed the counter lady into a wet cigarette. That fool yielded to our offer.
Arriving in Florida in December (depending on flight arrangements, it’s Miami, Key West or Ft. Lauderdale) is a pleasant feeling. The heat is a welcome change from the tedious cold of the North East (tedious because it’s a biting cold without the reprieve of snow). Most often, we arrive in Miami, pick up our rental car and drive the four hours down Route 1 it takes to get to Cudjoe Key. It’s really not an uncomfortable ride either, as your view consists of the Atlantic to your left and the Gulf of Mexico on your right. What is irritating is the father who insists on changing the radio dial every few seconds. Overall the drive is inconsequential, and we arrive at mile marker 23, Spanish Main, without any fanfare.
We stay in a “resort park” called Venture Out. There’s a slight, if uninteresting, irony in the fact that the resort is protected by both a gate system and shifting set of decaying, immobile “security” officers. The officers are a bit overbearing when it comes to “park rules,” but it’s easy to evade them, what with their slow moving golf carts and even slower reaction time.
For a while the community was actually a glorified trailer park. There were pancake breakfasts on saturday mornings (advertised by slow moving car and megaphone: “Wakey, wakey, rise and shine. Pancake breakfast, eight to nine. Pancakes, sausage, orange juice too [repeat].), lots of people mulling about in “wife-beater” T-shirts, children with close-set eyes chasing each other with spoons and signs reminding people that “The Prince of Peace is coming.” Will you be ready?
But with the wave of building regulations that followed Hurricane Andrew, George and Floyd, homes are now required to be built on 15 foot, hurricane ready stilts. Thus, the park is rapidly evolving away from an every-man type community into more of a true resort destination. The price of lots has surged upward, and constructing one of these stilted-houses pushes the price up another 250k. We (my parents) owned a place (piece of crap) in the park for several years until my dad finally lost patience with the weather and sold the joint to a nice Syrian man who handed him a suitcase of marked twenties. With enough planning, it’s just as easy to rent for the week.
From what I’ve gathered, Cudjoe Key is mostly made up of either half-year or full time residents. Quite a few doddering old folks come down from colder climates to spend the months of October through March in a more temperate region. Even then, you’ll see a lot of people wearing jackets and complaining about the cold during December (75 – 80 degrees). Old people also like to fish as they ponder their impending mortality (that’s why I like to fish too), and believe me, there are an abundance of fishing opportunities. The park has an impressive canal system that allows for perhaps half of its “homes” to keep some sort of ocean-worthy entity. Jutting outward from one side of the main thoroughfare and linking to the Gulf (not sure at what point Gulf officially starts), each canal provides easy access for the old folks to go fishing, the morons to go jet-skiing and the athletic types to go kayaking. We (parental unit) bought a sea kayak from my aunt that washed up on her property following Hurricane Floyd, and I usually go out to commune with nature once a day during the trips. She’s a good vessel and has never let me down. The water is shallow and warm, and there are mangrove islands (ever-expanding groupings of trees/shrubs that form an island-like structure, home to an impressive number of bird and insect species) to explore. If you have enough will (I don’t), you can kayak out to “Monkey Island,” a location where monkeys were used as unwilling test subjects (drugs? shampoo?). There were two sides to the island. One, on which monkeys were allowed to rome somewhat freely, and the other, where they were kept in cages and used as test subjects. The “free” roaming monkeys destroyed half the island, stripping it bare of any vegetation. Rumor has it that they would also throw things at boaters who came too close. At a certain point, the whole enterprise was determined to be inhumane and the order was made to “shut it down boys.” You can now get a close up view of what remains.
The yearly trip is more about doing as little as possible in the tourist sense, so we spend our time reading, eating, kayaking, hearing the latest almost unfathomable tales of family drama that seem to plague my mother’s side of the family, and of course, we go to Key West.
Note that my passion isn’t really this pronounced, but Key West is without a doubt one of my least favorite places on the planet. It makes me sick. As the gentrification continues, the “Conchs,” as Key West locals are called, are being swept up north as it becomes more and more difficult to afford the climbing cost of living. I don’t honestly have any real personal sympathy for them, but I wonder if the place is getting lamer and lamer as a result of their departure. If I’m feeling nostalgic, I can imagine the Key West of not-so-long-ago being a less soulless place (“If it’s good enough for Hemingway, well by golly, it’s good enough for me.”), but by now, any charm that it once may have had is mired by the repetitive muck of T-shirt shops, tourist shlop (Conch train) and too many people in pasteled hawaiian shirts, bermuda shorts and sandals.
I will reluctantly admit, however, that I do like walking along the docks by the marina and ending up at Mallory Square to watch the street performers. These are not your typical street performers (see beer-breathed, toothless bum with old guitar missing strings, rib-caged, panting dog and empty hat). Look out for Movin’ Melvin. Melvin says that people say, “Melvin can you move faster?!” And he says in response to what he says people say, “now watch me now!” And he moves faster than previously. The whole crowd gets involved, and our line, delivered in unison, becomes “Melvin, can you move faster?!” The climax comes when Melvin can no longer move any faster.
You would think that the Keys would feature some solid beaches, but this is not really the case. There are a few public beaches in Key West, but locals will tell you that “they never swim in that cesspool.” It’s supposedly about half sludge and half water. It seems like the local government is always in the process of “doing something about the pollution.” That said, the public beaches are perfectly acceptable for lying around and burning.
Instead of the Key West Beaches, we usually make a day trip to the Bahia Honda State Park (reasonable entrance fee required, $4 – 6 per person?), a small island preserve featuring a “naturally occurring” beach. This amounts to a chapped, bumpy layer of sand/rock, with sea weed strewn about. The overall olfactory effect is a salty, rotted stench. The park is one of a kind. You can bring a cooler inside and there are public grills available with admission. There’s also a campsite with cabins available for rent, a marina, a large convenience type store where you can order food, and rent kayaks and snorkel gear.
And wherever you are, keep an eye out for the elusive Key deer: It’s tiny (about three feet tall for bucks), amphibious (not technically, but can swim easily from key to key), and unfortunately, endangered. You can go to the Key Deer Preserve, but that’s cheating. I’ve only managed to see one in the wild, as he crossed the street nonchalantly by the Winn Dixie supermarket. One day I hope to see a ocean going Key deer making his or her way to a less inhabited island.