As anybody who knows me or reads this column on a regular basis will know, I do not like to be cold.
Now, I know we can’t really complain, but it has been a little chillier than normal this winter. So recently, my lovely husband took me to Key West (“as far South as we can get without getting on a plane or boat,” he said) to warm up a bit.
Have you been to the Keys? I am hooked. They have all the benefits of the Caribbean with the convenience, service and high standards of mainland U.S. living. And that drive on historic U.S. Route 1! From the first and largest island, Key Largo, across 42 bridges to the tip of Key West, I have just one word to say: WOW!
That was probably the most beautiful 126-mile drive of my life, especially the spectacular seven-mile bridge. Yes, sometimes the traffic can be bad since it is a single, two-lane highway from the Florida mainland out to the end of the island string, but still, I cannot recommend it enough.
As well as enjoying the relaxation, spectacular sunsets and laid-back lifestyle of the Keys, I actually learned a great deal about this part of the U.S., which was a revelation to me.
Did you know that the Florida Keys are:
• Made up of exposed portions of an ancient coral reef with little sand, unlike the barrier islands further north which are composed primarily of sand?
• Only 90 miles from Cuba at the southernmost tip of Key West?
• “Wreckers” made their living from salvaging valuables from the many shipwrecks which happened on the perilous reefs along the Keys? There are rumors that Spanish silver and gold still is hidden in the depths, especially from the infamous Plate Fleet disaster in 1733.
• The Keys have distinctive plant and animal species thriving in the tropical climate including the key deer and the American crocodile?
• In the 19th and 20th centuries, agriculture became more important with the growing of pineapples, coconuts and the now-famous key limes? My husband and I can’t agree — I think they are best used in key-lime pie, while he believes they are put to best use in a vodka-tonic.
According to www.history.com, Key West was first discovered in 1513 by the Spaniard Ponce de Leon, who fought the indigenous Calusa Indians. The battles that ensued, and the resulting burial mounds, gave the island the name “Isle of Bones,” or Cayo Hueso, which over time has been Anglicized to Key West.
In the late 1800s, Key West was the largest city in Florida. It was an important military outpost, and a number of industries also drove this growth, including fishing, agriculture, cigars and even the sponge industry.
In 1982, the city of Key West briefly declared independence from the U.S., taking the name “The Conch Republic.” This was in response to U.S. border patrols setting up checkpoints on U.S. 1 to check for illegal immigrants and drugs. After registering complaints to the federal government regarding the 15-mile long traffic jams, the mayor and city council of Key West declared independence, immediately declared war on the United States and, one minute later, surrendered unconditionally. They then applied for $1 billion of foreign aid. (See www.conchrepublic.com for a fascinating account of this amusing and little-known event in American history.)
Famous residents of Key West have included Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Buffett and a number of U.S. presidents who used it as a retreat.
My discovery of Key West has just reinforced my belief that the U.S. is the best country in the world to live, with such a range of climates and natural beauty, not to mention the unusual and interesting people who go with it.
Please indulge my enthusiasm for traveling as I discover more of this great nation I have made my home, but perhaps it is as my famous fellow Brit and former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said: “Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”
God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009.