The ‘other’ Florida
July 30, 2004
Oh, you. You saw the word Florida, and you rolled your eyes. Admit it – you’re a destination snob. There is no way you could tell your Bhutan-is-so-yesterday friends that you are going to the Sunshine State. And who can blame you? Florida is known for its theme parks, sugar cane mafias and faulty ballots. Florida, and that damn gub’ner! Don’t even get you started.Well, mister, there was no bigger Florida foe than me. But it was a hellish winter, and desperate times (and temperatures) called for Florida. So I went and found a place so good that it rocked my world. I fell in mad love, and this is why I’m not going to tell you where it is. That’s right. I’m not your destination pimp anymore. For years I’ve been selling out special places for a few bucks and a byline. Not anymore. I’ve seen the light (a soft, beachy light) and accepted Florida as my personal savior. You travel snobs are smart, though, so you’re going to figure it out.And, remember, Florida works in mysterious ways.Many-legged journey Let me start by telling you that this place isn’t easy to get to. This should please you to no end because as travel snobs know, any place worth getting to exacts a toll of jet lag, diarrhea, exhaustion and rumpled clothing. You’ll get the latter. The last leg of travel to Destination X – after a few flights and a taxi – will be like all last legs of arduous journeys. It will test you, exhaust you and give you a delicious juxtaposition for your ultimate destination. There are no beggars, no disturbing live-animal markets or spooky rickshaw or chicken-bus rides in this part of Florida, but something worse: an endless wasteland of Wal-Marts, buffalo-wing-serving chain restaurants and nail salons. You have to stop here to pick up an order of groceries and booze before heading to the island. Relax. In half an hour you’ll be at a tiny marina eating seafood that “could only be fresher if it were served underwater” and drinking a beer. Go ahead and have a second beer – you’re not driving. Not for a week. There are no cars where we’re going.Take the last boat out to the island. The channel is quiet and black, and you’ll go slowly at first, past the dark lush shapes of mangroves. When the boat picks up considerable speed you’ll hang onto your hat and look at the stars. You’re suddenly in the ocean, whizzing along in the blackness. This is probably when your traveling companion will turn to you and say, “It’s hard to believe we’re in Florida.” This is not the first time you will hear this. Your island house will be neither too rustic nor too upscale (shell motif, cool tile floors), but just right. Unpack your groceries. Sleep where you fall.The Land Before TimeThe next day, before you’ve finished your first cup of coffee, you will have seen six different bird species, including the osprey, nesting on the top deck of your house. When you wander down the sandy path to the beach, second cup of coffee in hand, the things that are absent are as conspicuous as the things that are visible.Sure, there’s the emerald sea and the sugary sand, but what’s missing here? There are no stacks of condos – nothing tall at all, except the tops of houses peeking above palm groves. And the quiet. You can practically hear the blood in your ears.How long has it been since you’ve been to a place without cars? (It’s the Land Before Time!) The only way to get around here is on foot, bicycle or in golf carts, which are so silent that they can sneak up and startle you during a moment of reverie. What else is missing here? People. It’s after Easter and empty. A whole morning passes, and you’ve seen two people: an apologetic-looking jogger and a man on a fatty-seat balloon-tire bike. After lunch you make your way to the pool. Your skin is plump from humidity, your eyes blurry with chlorine, and your hairdo irretrievable. By day three you are really into the groove, zipping around the island’s shady little sand roads in nothing but your bathing suit. Who knew that driving a golf cart could be so fun? Drinking (not drunkenness) and driving is not uncommon here. Other drivers, slouched splay-legged, one hand draped casually over the wheel, raise their cocktails in salute as they pass. Zoom! There you go, to the club pool and back, exploring little roads, peeking into the conch-shell-lined gardens of beach houses dripping with bougainvillea.If you bring a child, as I did, you’ll want to rent a paddle boat and laze around the bay into the oyster-encrusted mangroves. Watch, with alarm and admiration, the sea otters as they slip silently aboard fishing boats, deftly open the bait coolers and gorge themselves. Later, watch your osprey (you’ve come to think of him as your personal osprey) eat a sea trout, tearing into it with its hooked beak. Life, a friend once told you, just wants to eat other life.With this in mind, head to the island’s Tiki bar for dinner. One of two restaurants here, this eatery claims, without irony, that it has been “voted the best breakfast on the island.” Dine dockside under a thatched roof at a picnic table. Eat fried seafood (clam strips, hush puppies) from plastic baskets and drink bottled beer. When the mosquitoes start to close in, order your key lime pie to go and dance with your child while listening to a loop tape of Bob Marley, the Beach Boys and Jimmy Buffet. You’ll start to picture your life here, with its slow pace and catch-of-the-day menu.Perhaps your mate, like mine, will have begun to resemble Panama Jack, with his straw fedora, sunglasses and relaxed-fit wardrobe. You think you could stay here forever. You picture your children, browned and barefoot, going to school by boat while you write novels at an old typewriter under the churn of a Casablanca fan.You are wrong. You, a travel snob, know that all great places have their prices, and this place is no exception. It takes a few days for reality to set in, to get tired of the sand in the beds and the endless application of sun block.The dark sideThe reality of Destination X is the reality of most islands. A USA Today and a Dove Bar cost the Earth. The tourists (you’re a traveler, damn it, not a tourist) can be abominable. There are the cocksure grinning men wearing backwards hats at the helms of high-powered fishing boats. When you tell these men to slow down because there are endangered manatees here, gentle blameless creatures with propeller-scarred backs, these men will roll their eyes. The natives are gentler but just as worrisome. They are not merely relaxed but soused – many seem stuck in the blurry netherworld between drunkenness and hangover. It dawns on you that the charming beach houses are all on stilts for a reason. Nature can make short work of islands, as it did a few decades ago when it cleaved a nearby cay in half during a hurricane. You will happen upon a flyer tacked to a bulletin board at the marina that informs you that Destination X is home to aggressive, shallow-water-loving bull sharks. There is a picture of one, big as a kayak, patrolling the knee-deep water of a beach you like, half of its back up in the air. From that moment on, you will feel like pale, coconut-scented chum.But no bother. You, traveler, are here for a mere week. There are secret beaches to explore and along them the fracas of nature: dark snakes, tortoise dens, dainty ibises tiptoeing at the water’s edge, pods of dolphins rolling through the surf. You become obsessed with seashells for no reason but that the shelling is incredible here, and you spend more and more time in the froth, hunting for perfect tulips and orange lion’s paws. There is a nudist colony on this island, and you understand why. By now you are mostly naked all the time.”I feel oppressed by my shorts,” says Panama Jack, slipping into nothing in particular after breakfast. Like all beach bums, you have come to appreciate the truism that “tan fat looks better.” You admire such, in your outdoor shower, while geckos dart around your feet. Cocktail hour comes earlier and earlier, and you’re dangerously close to slipping into the netherworld. The all-you-can-eat crab night at the local “upscale” restaurant leaves you defeated rather than sated. Luckily there’s dessert, and Snickers is a bonafide ingredient in this part of the world (see tan fat, above).Slack-jawed and happy By the time you hit the end of the week you’re beach-worn, slack-jawed and in need of a 12-step program. It’s hard, so hard, to believe you’re in Florida, and you certainly don’t care anymore that Florida won’t impress your Everest-without-oxygen friends. You’re an explorer in your own way, slicing through the neotropics in your trusty golf cart, lacking anti-malarials and with only a rum and tonic for sustenance (the lime wedge prevents scurvy). Why, just this morning you’ve seen an elusive mangrove cuckoo.And to think, you found this place yourself – with a just a handful of clues. But no, don’t look to me. I’m not your destination pimp anymore.Lou Bendrick, a former columnist with the Aspen Times, lives in southern Massachusetts and pines for warmer locales. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.