ISLAMORADA, FLORIDA – It’s one of those perfect January days in the Florida Keys. The parking lot at Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada is full, and the patio at The Hungry Tarpon is crowded with visitors soaking up the sun along a stretch of perfect, green-blue water.
There was a big crowd at dinner the night before at Lazy Days restaurant, where diners sat at tables on the verandah on a clear, blue-sky night and listened to a singer warble Neil Young and Jimmy Buffett tunes.
A lot of folks in the Florida Keys are doing just fine after the devastation of Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10. Almost 80 per cent of the lodging units in the Keys are open for business, including all major attractions and just about every hotel room in Key West.
If you’re a Florida Keys lover and you’re worried about not having a good time, you’re way off-base.
“Visitors were able to come back to the Keys three weeks after the storm,” Florida Keys tourism spokesman Andy Newman told me. “In Key West, they were open for cruise ships two weeks afterward. We’re definitely open for business.”
“It was an amazingly fast recovery for as bad as things were,” said Jim Bernardin, co-owner of Pines & Palms Resort in Islamorada, where I bedded down for a night. “That’s the worst storm here in 45 years. Some of our rooms were really bad, with water everywhere and sand drifts up to the doorknobs.”
“We’re not quite up to the standards I’d like but we’re open and we’re coming along.”
Still, there’s pain etched on some faces in this famous stretch of the Sunshine State. There’s a fair amount of trash and debris strewn along the side of the road up around Key Largo and Tavernier. Some of the larger resorts, including Cheeca Lodge here in Islamorada and the Postcard Inn in Islamorada, remain shuttered for now, although both could open in March. And some folks who rely on tourists who stay in those resorts are feeling the effects.
“Usually I’d be out on a boat right now, guiding folks on the water,” said Jacob Hill as he lined up two-for-one, happy hour beers at the Pines & Palms Resort on Islamorada, a lovely, family-friendly spot on the Atlantic side of Islamorada that was hit hard by the hurricane. “But I’m working at the bar because the big resorts aren’t open. My primary work is back country tours with people who stay in those big resorts, so it hurts my business. A lot of other people rely on those customers, too.”
Up the road in Key Largo, Shawn Wade paints a similar picture at The Key Lime Tree. I’ve often stopped in at their café for a slice of key lime pie as a kind of “welcome to the keys” treat. But the café caught on fire after power was restored following the hurricane, Wade tells me. They hope to re-open in March.
The café is closed, but you can still (and should) stop at the store to buy colourful trinkets and home décor items in their outdoor shop on the side of the highway.
“We were under three and-a-half feet of water here,” Wade tells me. “That giant metal container over there weighs a ton. It’s 40 feet long and the water moved it eight feet further inland.”
Wade said a lot of “mom and pop” places have re-opened since the storm hit. “The big corporate places have insurance and they can start from scratch, though. Some of the resorts were thinking of renovating anyway so they’re using this as a time to do it. I don’t blame them. I’m a business person, too. I get it. But when those places are closed it effects people here.”
Still, they’ve re-opened part of their business and are determined to get back to normal soon. The media, however, doesn’t appear to be helping.
“A friend of mine in Chicago said he was watching the news the other day and they said the Keys were all destroyed,” Wade told me. “That’s hard to fight against, so we need people to tell the world that we’re up and running. But we do need more visitors.”
Hurricanes are fickle things. About six hours before Irma hit the Keys the storm looked like it was heading for Key West, the most popular tourist spot in the Keys. But it veered east and a bit north. Islamorada and Marathon were badly damaged in parts; mostly on the Atlantic side of the keys.
The day after I chatted with Jacob Hill and Bernardin at Pines & Palms I had breakfast up the road at the Lorelei Café. Unlike Pines and Palms, Lorelei is on the bay or north/west side of the Keys. It’s only a few feet across the highway to the Atlantic coast, but the storm surge that flooded properties on the Atlantic side and tossed up trees and twisted docks and even masses of concrete barely touched the bay side of the Keys.
“We lost a few trees in the wind but that’s about it,” my waitress at Lorelei told me as she poured a cup of coffee.
I looked around and didn’t see a trace of damage. The tables and chairs were set up on a sandy stretch of beach for that afternoon’s lunch or evening dinner. The roof was in good shape. The breakfast diners were all happy and content. A few feet away, gleaming white boats were coming and going from the slips in front of the Islamorada Fishing Club.
They may not be getting the high-end customers they usually have, but the folks who run fishing charters in the Keys say the hurricane had virtually no effect on the marine life. In fact, Captain Max Gaspeny out of Bud N’ Mary’s marina in Islamorada said the wind may have actually improved some fishing spots.
I can’t attest to how things were in the past, but I had a fantastic time on a two-hour trip to a small reef a couple of miles offshore. Gaspeny set me up with a light rod and reel and constantly threaded my hooks with wriggling shrimp and pieces of small fish as we cast for snapper and anything else we might want to try for our dinner. I started out by capturing an incessantly silly number of grunts, small fish that put up a fight and make grunting noises when you have them in your hand but that don’t taste like much. We tossed them all back. We also had to sadly send back several grouper that Gaspeny got on his line, one of which I hauled in with a great amount of effort as he coached me along. It was a hard-fighting seven pounder that was a blast to bring in and would’ve been a tasty entrée. But grouper season ended a couple weeks ago, and we had to send them back.
We did, however, catch a couple of nice mangrove snappers and several good-sized yellowtail snappers. I also snagged a nice-sized, tough-fighting mackerel and landed a small shark. Both of those went back in the water, mackerel being too oily for most folks’ taste.
It was the first time I’d ever been fishing in the ocean, and I had a splendid time. In two hours I caught at least 30 or 35 fish, a couple of which ended up on our plate that night at Lazy Days restaurant next to the marina.
If you’re not a fishing fan, there’s still a ton of great things to do in the area. The cycling is great given the flat terrain of the Keys, the water is still that remarkable shade of aquamarine blue, the restaurants are almost entirely open and attractions such as Theatre of the Seas are ready for customers.
As rough as the hurricane was, people down here are used to a frontier-style of life. They’re hardy folks who aren’t easily deterred.
As I drove into Key Largo from Miami I saw a hand-painted sign on a lawn that said, “Can’t drown a conch,” conch being a type of shellfish but also the name that folks in the Keys sometimes use for themselves. Near Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada I snapped a photo of a mail box with what looked like a stuffed grey manatee wearing a colourful grass skirt (hey, it’s the Keys) and a sign that read “Keys Strong.”
“People up north think we were devastated but we’re getting there,” Hill told me at Pines and Palms. “It’s not our first rodeo here in the Keys.”
IF YOU GO
Pines N’ Palms is a charming place with a series of cottages, hotel-style rooms and condo-like units. I had unit 9, which sat on the edge of the beach with a welcoming hammock in front and comfortable chairs on the patio. There was a small but full kitchen with everything I needed, as well as a charcoal barbeque on the patio. “We want folks to feel at home; maybe toss a steak on the grill at night,” co-owner Jim Bernardin said.
Amara Cay Folks looking for a more upscale spot should try this lovely resort, just a few feet up the road from Pines and Palms. I stayed there a couple years ago and loved the décor and the food.
Lazy Days is a fun restaurant on the water reasonable prices and American-sized portions.
The Hungry Tarpon is a great lunch spot, with one of those goofy bars festooned with dollar bills on the ceiling and awesome, ocean-front tables.
Lorelei is a fun restaurant on the quiet, bay side of Islamorada. Locals say they have the best sunsets in town.
Bud N’ Mary’s has all sorts of fishing trips available.
Jacob Hill, the bartender at Pines and Palms, runs a business called Into the Skinny Charters.
Florida Keys Information: http://www.fla-keys.com/
General Florida Information: http://www.visitflorida.com/en-us.html