The Florida Keys: feeding the sharks & colourful Key West

KEY WEST – The Florida Keys have always been a favourite for me. I’ve always driven down from Miami in the past and enjoyed watching the colour of the water change and checking out the odd tiki bar along the way for a beer and a blackened fish sandwich. Usually I drive, but this time I flew in with some other Canadian travel writers, landing on the short runway at the airport in Key West.

Someone on our very short bus ride into town was telling me they find it hard to describe the feeling of coming from a cold climate and landing in the southernmost part of Florida on a fall day. It’s not exactly poetry, but I love the way the warm sea air seeps into your nostrils and lungs and envelopes you like a long lost friend. I love the humidity and the air pressure and the salt on the wind, a tangy reminder of sailboats and open blue-green water and rum bars and Jimmy Buffett tunes and tiny islands of thick mangroves and keering seagulls and cloud-laced sunsets of pink and gold.

Key West and the Keys in general are very cool, with tons of colourful characters and fun people and places to check out. I’d somehow never stepped inside the Ernest Hemingway House on my previous visits, but I made a point this time around. It’s pretty good, although I had to make a point of telling the tour guide that Hemingway did NOT work for the Toronto Telegraph (as the guide had told me) but for my former employer, The Toronto Star. That issue aside, it was fun to learn about Hemingway’s four wives and the famous six-toed cats that prowl around the grounds and laze about on the great author’s furniture.

A view from the Key West lighthouse.

A view from the Key West lighthouse.

Across the street is a fine lighthouse, another attraction I hadn’t seen until this time around. It’s not hard to reach the top, only about 88 steps, but it’s a tad steep coming down. The views are excellent, even though you’re a bit far from the water.

I managed part of a trolley ride around town, listening to a tour guide talk about local history and how Key West is closer to Cuba than it is to the nearest Wal Mart. It’s a goofy stat, but I kinda like it.

We also checked out the southernmost point in the continental U.S. (the actual southernmost point is in Hawaii, doncha know) and toured a bit on Duval St., where all the t-shirts get sold and the cheap beer gets consumed. I don’t mind Duval, but I actually think it’s one of the least interesting parts of Key West. (I admit, on the other hand, that I kinda like some of the silly t-shirts. One that really caught my eye said “Drink Triple, See Double, Act Single.”).

You'll find plenty of colourful characters on Duval St. in Key West.

You’ll find plenty of colourful characters on Duval St. in Key West.

Duval can be fun, but I much prefer the colourful homes on the side streets and the marinas and the sunset ceremony at Mallory Square, although I could do without the bible thumpers and off-key singers trying to warble Fleetwood Mac tunes.

There are, in case you’re like me and like a respite from the madness, more than a few cool places to chill out and enjoy a bit of nature in Key West. The city’s oldest house is in the middle of the Duval St. madness but has a pretty garden and nice displays of old-time furniture and such. The Truman White House also has fine public areas, as does the lighthouse. One of the prettiest gardens I found was at the Audubon House, just steps from Mallory Square. Cool period furnishing and Audobon nature photos inside, and a fabulous garden out back with fountains and colourful croton and more.

The Audubon House in Key West offers a quiet respite from Duval St.

The Audubon House in Key West offers a quiet respite from Duval St.

We were supposed to go kayaking but the weather didn’t cooperate. That was too bad, but the Amara Cay Resort people in Islamorada put on a fine wine-tasting that more than made up for it.

(I’ll have a separate blog on our Florida Keys food and hotel stays later this week or early next week, as well as a sighting of a TV celebrity I really like.)

Here are some other highlights from our trip, courtesy of the Florida Keys tourism folks:

– The Turtle Hospital in Marathon does nice work in the Keys to rescue turtles, many of which get clipped and badly cut by boat propellers or ingest plastic bags that they mistake for jellyfish. It’s an educational tour, and you can get pretty close to turtles with fun names such as Gilligan, Ginger, Bacon and Coral.

Aquarium Encounters in Marathon allows visitors to snorkel in a giant tank filled with exotic fish. You get to feed them chopped fish squeezed out of a tube and you also can let a spotted ray suck a small squid right out of your outstretched hand (assuming a hungry hogfish doesn’t dart in and grab it first).
Best of all is the chance to push small, skinny fish through a narrow tube that connects the fish tank you snorkel in with an identical, clear tank next door. Why? Because on the other side, only inches from your face but safely behind the clear aquarium wall, are moray eels and five-foot long reef sharks that come up and snatch the food from your hand, which is well protected on the other side of the glass. You know you’re not in danger, but having a five-foot shark clamp its primordial, powerful jaws onto a piece of fish that you’re holding onto is an amazing experience. Perhaps not so environmentally correct, but I’ll leave that to you to judge. In addition to swimming with the fishes, you can snorkel in a mangrove lagoon or stroll the lush grounds and watch ibis or egrets fish for their dinner. They also have a kids area where you can touch a starfish and other sea creatures.

– They do a pretty good job with the glass bottom boat tour in Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo. I’ve seen cheesy glass-bottom boat excursions but this one, which took us out to Molasses Key on a fine, sunny day, was pretty good; with nice-sized, super-clear glass to check out marine life. Personally I prefer snorkelling, but not everyone is that comfortable in the water. And it’s a nice boat ride, either way.

– At Robbie’s Marina we got to feed some tarpon. Sounds tame enough, but some of these beasts looked to be a metre-long and they make a big splash when they jump to get a piece of fish out of your hand. I’m not embarrassed to say I dropped mine whenever one got close enough to my hand, which I delicately held about six inches above the waters of the bay in Islamorada. Fun, but a bit scary! The marina also features a large number of artists selling Florida bric-a-brac and some decent paintings, as well as an outdoor café (beware of the birds above).

DSCF4248– Super fun for me was a chugga-chugga-chugga ride on the original African Queen steamboat used in the wonderful movie with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Captain Mike is a pretty good storyteller and it was fun to cruise the canals of Key Largo (and briefly the open water) as we learned about the movie and the (expensive) renovation of the ship. It’s a tad loud but I found it pretty romantic and just downright fun. I even got to steer.

For more information, visit the Florida Keys and Key West website.

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A new survey of North American Airports by J.D. Power & Associates gave the highest ratings to Portland (a 791 rating out of a possible 1,000 points), Tampa (776) and, in third place, McCarran International in Las Vegas (759). That’s in the large airport category. The only Canadian airport in that section was Toronto Pearson, which came in with a rating of 719; the exact average for large facilities in North America. The bottom three? I’m glad you asked. Those would be Los Angeles (670), LaGuardia in New York (655) and Newark Liberty in New Jersey (a woeful 646). No wonder NYC officials can’t wait for some airport makeovers.

Vancouver International Airport is one of the top-rated facilities in North America. I've always enjoyed my visits.

Vancouver International Airport is one of the top-rated facilities in North America. I’ve always enjoyed my visits.

In the medium airport category, the top rating went to Dallas and the Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers, with ratings of 792. Indianapolis and Raleigh-Durham came tied for third at 789. Vancouver International was ninth in the medium-size category with a 770 rating. Calgary was down at 739, better than Pearson but well below the average medium-size airport rating of 752. Montreal Trudeau? Um, WAY down at 710, the fourth worst in North America.
In this year’s study, overall traveler satisfaction with the airport experience averages 725, an improvement from 690 in 2010, which was the last time the study was conducted. Overall satisfaction with large airports is 719, up from 665 in 2010, and satisfaction with medium airports is 752, a 69-point increase.

“Most airports have really made a tremendous shift over the past six years and are now focused on managing the end-to-end experience for their travelers,” said Rick Garlick, global travel and hospitality practice lead at J.D. Power. “It’s no longer just about getting travelers from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible; it’s about making the airport experience enjoyable.”

A key element of the cultural shift is that airports are placing an emphasis on terminal facilities, which have the greatest impact on overall airport satisfaction. Terminal facilities include everything from restaurants and retail operations to restrooms and seating near gates.

“Travelers now are substantially more satisfied with retail experiences in their airport,” said Jeff Conklin, vice president of the utility & infrastructure practice at J.D. Power. “Airports that have responded to this demand by offering a variety of food, beverage, merchandise, and other attractive services and amenities are realizing significant gains in overall customer satisfaction.”

– See more at: http://www.jdpower.com/press-releases/2015-north-america-airport-satisfaction-study#sthash.AMmJSGkc.dpuf

hikeThis was taken earlier this year on a hike outside Palm Springs. The hiking in and around town is absoloutely marvellous. And not at all difficult. Meanwhile, Civic Resource Group (CRG) and the Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism of Palm Springs, Calif. today announced the availability of the Augmented Reality “VisitPalmSprings” App on iTunes. The joint collaboration achieves the goal of designing and delivering a mobile solution that provides instant, multi-aspect navigation data. Residents, visitors and tourists in the City of Palm Springs now have instant access to a broad range of information about the city on their mobile device.

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