TULSA -- I have spent a lot of time over the past few weeks thinking about those affected by Hurricane Irma…especially those in the Florida Keys. My family and I love it there and consider it our "second home" because of our yearly trips to this tropical paradise.
I remember planning our first trip to the Keys. We had already visited Orlando, Walt Disney World and Cocoa Beach a couple of years before. My family and I were sitting outside of a Tulsa restaurant planning our next trip. The first destination thrown out was Destin. As we continued to pin down a destination, we kept going farther and farther into Florida until my son said, “why not go all the way to the Keys?”. It was an intriguing idea but we knew it was a LONG way to drive and probably just a pipe dream. It must have been the idea of a cross-country adventure like Clark Griswold in “Vacation” that we all agreed to DRIVE to the Florida Keys!
The Florida Keys are a coral island archipelago that begins about 15 miles south of Miami and stretches 180 miles to the southwest with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Florida Bay on the other. There are over 800 keys total with 42 bridges connecting the main keys. Key West is the county seat of Monroe County, which includes all the keys and a part of the southwestern mainland. Key West can be a little crazy and is known as a party town, which it is, but also has a lot of charm and a wonderful seafaring history. The rest of the Keys are pretty laid back with sport fishing, diving and snorkeling the top draws.
After 2 days and 1,500 miles, we made it to our resort in Islamorada. It is located about a third of the way down the Keys. We stayed at a resort that was right on the Atlantic Ocean. The waters right off of the keys are very shallow but they produce some of the most amazing blue-green colors I have ever seen! That week, we spent plenty of time just sitting on the beach and taking in the view while a wonderful sea breeze kept us cool. We spent hours IN the water snorkeling and swimming as well as time ON the water kayaking. Every late afternoon/early evening, we could see lightning off in the distance. These storms were about 90 miles away...on the northern coast of Cuba! Speaking of weather, on our day trip to Key West, I had to stop by and visit with the meteorologists at the National Weather Service office! That week, we drove up and down the Keys, taking in all of the beautiful sights. Yes, it was vacation, but I felt a level of peace and relaxation that I had never felt before on any vacation. The last night before the long drive home, I told my wife about that peace and she told me that she felt the same. Heading home, we talked about what we enjoyed the most and began planning on coming back the following year!
In fact, we enjoyed it so much, that the following year, we drove down and stayed at the same place! We would have preferred to fly this time but we took my mom and dad and they wanted to drive so we made the long trip again. I know what you are thinking…driving from Tulsa to the Florida Keys twice in two years? Are you crazy? I might have been but this time, I knew what awaited us when we arrived! It was another wonderful week and we were glad to share the experience with my parents.
The following year, we stayed on the southwestern end of Islamorada, on the bay side. On this trip, 15 members of my wife’s family came along for a big family vacation! Fortunately, on this trip, we flew into Ft. Lauderdale and drove down to the Keys. We hit all of our favorite spots and found many new locations that we fell in love with such as Bahia Honda State Park. It is one of the most beautiful spots in the Keys with several great beaches and tropical views that could be on a postcard! Bahia Honda means “deep bay” in Spanish. The channel is one of the deepest natural channels in the Keys. Not only is this place beautiful but it became our favorite spot for beach snorkeling with a vast array of tropical fish, lobster, hogfish, barracuda, conchs and even the occasional nurse shark! A bridge from Henry Flagler’s Old East Coast Railroad is located here. The railroad was destroyed during the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, which is the most powerful hurricane to ever hit the United States! Bahia Honda hooked me on Keys snorkeling. That same year, we went deep sea fishing and caught several nice yellow-tailed snapper that we grilled that evening…amazing flavor! We also made it to Mallory Square in Key West to watch the setting of the sun and to enjoy the nightly entertainment on the square.
The next summer, our 4th trip to the Keys, we stayed farther down the Keys in Marathon, near Sombrero Beach. On this trip, two very special things occurred that I will never forget. My daughter and I went 5.5 miles offshore to snorkel at Sombrero Key Light. This was more of a challenge with some waves but saw some of the most beautiful tropical fish I had ever seen and absorbed in all of the beauty that surrounded us. The following day, my son, who is a private pilot, rented a plane and took me up to see the Keys from the air. We flew over the middle Keys but also flew out and around Sombrero Key Light, the same place I had snorkeled with my daughter just the day before! It was an experience I will never forget!
The next year, my daughter brought a friend along and we stayed on Long Key. It is a small, quiet key between Islamorada to the northeast and Marathon to the southwest. We stayed on the bay side and spent countless hours snorkeling and enjoyed some amazing sunsets while sitting on the dock of the bay (cue Otis Redding!). On this trip we got up close and personal with numerous barracuda and a couple of nurse sharks.
This past summer, we decided to stay in Key West but away from the busy nightlife of Duval Street. We found a great condo near Key West International Airport and Smathers Beach. It had a wonderful dock where I spent peaceful mornings watching the sunrise with a cup of coffee in hand! That week, we moved around town like a local. We visited an exotic bird rescue center, took plenty of walks on the beaches, ate lots of fresh seafood and island favorites and enjoyed wonderful sunsets. In fact, we finished off our vacation with dinner at Latitudes Restaurant on Sunset Key. It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever seen and was happy to experience it with my family!
In the beginning, we had never planned on visiting the Keys but I am so glad my son brought the idea up! The Keys have become our second home and we have made so many family memories and met so many great people over the years. Hurricane Irma damaged or destroyed many of our favorite places and our hearts are broken for the people of the Florida Keys but we know they will come back stronger than ever! We have called or texted numerous people there to check on their well-being. We plan on going back in 2018 to help them with their economy, which will take a major hit due to a decrease in tourism. Please pray with us for a very special place...the Florida Keys and the people who still call it home!
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