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March 1 - 9 - Florida Keys

Since first wintering in Florida in 2007, we've wanted to visit the Florida Keys. And this being our last winter in Florida, it was now or never. So when our paid time at 1000 Trails Orlando (1) was up, we headed south. In retrospect, we shouldn't have procrastinated. The older we get, the less energy we seem to have for exploring new places. But we spent a full week in the Keys, and wish we could afford more time. March is still high season in the Keys, and prices were set accordingly. We stayed at the Sunset Key Resort (3), about 40 miles from Key West, and as far south as we could go before the RV park rates got prohibitively high.

We broke our trip south into two days, spending the night at the Big Cypress RV Campground (2), a very nice park inside of and operated by the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. It would be a great place to spend more time. It's about 40 miles from any other civilization.

The Florida Keys emerged from the ocean about 150,000 years ago. Starting as coral reefs, they were soon colonized by salt-tolerant mangrove trees, which in turn captured and retained almost anything that floated by. Today, there are about 800 islands in the Keys, but fewer than 50 are inhabited. Most of those are connected by the Overseas Highway - US-1 - which runs south and west from the Florida mainland, terminating at Key West. US-1 pretty much follows the right-of-way of the original railway that connected those islands from 1912 until 1935, when a major hurricane destroyed major chunks of the railroad. What with the depression and all, the railroad never recovered.

Key West is arguably the best known of the Keys. It may be the original "drinking town with a fishing problem". It's not the last of the keys in that hook-shaped line stretching into the Gulf of Mexico - the Keys go on another 70 miles or so - but it is at the end of the road. Beyond Key West there's only one populated island - Sunset Key - and it's only about 500 yards beyond Key West, privately owned and operated as an exclusive resort by the Westin Hotel. It was pointed out several times that in Key West you're closer to Cuba than to the nearest Walmart.

Key West was first encountered by European explorers in the 1500s, as Ponce de Leon was searching for that Fountain of Youth. After that, it went though several incarnations. In modern times (since the Revolutionary War), it's always been a fishing town. But along with that, it's been a major military town, a major rum-running port, the place where the Cuban revolution of 1885 was planned and organized, and a destination for all kinds of interesting people from beach bums and hippies to Presidents, famous authors and artists. Most of that history involved alcohol consumption, legal or otherwise. Alcohol was also probably involved in Key West's succession from the US and attempt to establish an independent country.

That was in 1982. When Fidel Castro let anybody who wanted out to leave Cuba, it started the Marial Boat Lift, and thousands of Cubans headed for the US, only 90 miles away in Key West. In response, the US Immigration and Customs folks set up a "border station" on US-1, effectively choking off the tourist traffic headed for Key West. In response to that, the Key West City Council decided that since they were on the outside of that border station and being treated as foreigners, they might as well declare themselves to be a foreign country. Thus was formed the Conch Republic. (It's pronounced "conk".)

Upon declaring independence, the new republic declared war on the US and attacked - the mayor hit a Navy officer over the head with a stale Cuban roll. When the Navy guy counter-attacked (he threw the roll back), the Republic quickly surrendered, and immediately applied for $1 billion in foreign aid, as all folks defeated by the US do. The Feds got the point, the border station came down, and all was forgiven (except that the foreign aid never came). But the Conch Republic survives. It currently has an air force (10 or so planes headed by a 1940 Waco biplane), a Navy (around 40 boats, most of them equipped for deep-sea fishing), and an official State Department, which will cheerfully sell you an official Conch Republic flag, or coffee cup or t-shirt or postcard. And that ought to give you a pretty good idea of what Key West is all about.

We started our exploration of Key West by buying two-day passes on the local sight-seeing trolley, at one point being driven by none other than Cris Cringle, who actually looked a lot like Ernest Hemingway. But then, a lot of people in Key West look a lot like Ernest Hemingway. The island is only 2 miles by 4 miles (and half of that man-made fill), and parking is at a premium. In fact, the city recommends you use bicycles to get around. But bike riding in heavy traffic isn't our thing, so we bounced around on the trolley.

Among our Key West highlights:

We went to Jimmy Buffet's original Margaritaville, where we ordered margaritas and Al had their trademarked "Cheeseburger in Paradise". A tasty lunch for only $53.75!

We toured the home that Ernest Hemingway shared with his second wife, and where he wrote much of his best stuff. We saw the descendants of some of his 19 six-toed cats (there are now about 50 cats on the estate), and saw his "Last Cent", a penny which his wife embedded in concrete near the pool after their divorce.  He had a tantrum when he discovered she had spent "all his money" on a swimming pool in his absence, and threw the penny (his "last cent") into the pool.

We took pictures of the "Southernmost Point" in the continental US, and of the "end of the road" - mile marker zero on US-1.

We toured Mel Fisher's Treasure Museum, and saw some of the half-billion (with a "B") dollars in gold and silver he salvaged from the Spanish galleon Atocha.

We had Key Lime pie - once from Kermit's Key Lime Shop, voted best Key Lime Pie in Key West, and once at a little Cuban cafe where we had lunch. Truth be told, we liked the Cuban version better.

We toured an old Civil War fort, now the home of the Key West Garden Club, and home to some impressive displays of exotic plants from all over the world.

We saw a couple of pretty nice sunsets.

We also took the time to tour parts of the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, established to protect the endangered Key deer. It's the smallest of the many varieties of the white tail deer - males stand about 3ft at the shoulder, females about 2/3 that size - and there are only about 700 of them left, all in the Florida Keys. We also visited a nature preserve that includes the oldest house in the Florida keys outside Key West - built of tabby in 1903 by a Bahamian sponge harvester named George Adderley.

On our last day, as we were leaving Key West and heading back to the RV park, we were rear-ended by a guy in a jeep. The result was that our bike rack was terminally mangled. As luck would have it, we were right next to a bicycle shop and the idiot in the jeep had enough cash to replace the bike rack. So it was an interesting end to our Key West experience. And it could have been a lot worse had we been hauling the bikes that day.

Driving back up US-1 on our last day, in the 40 miles from Key West to the RV park, we counted at least 50 Ford Mustang convertibles heading south. Turns out that the car rental places at the Miami airport rent a LOT of Mustang convertibles to the touristas. It's kind of the official rag-top of Key West.

On March 9, we hooked up and headed north again. With another overnight stop at Big Cypress (3), we made it back to the 1000 Trails Orlando Resort (1) on March 10, in time for an affordable lunch at Culvers.

We started out with over 600 photos from our week in the Keys. We've culled those down to about 130 survivors, which you'll find in our slideshow. Check them out here if you choose.

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