Monday, January 30, 2017

Islands You Can Drive To (Florida Keys)

The "Welcome to Marathon" sign at the side of the road evokes the lighthouse that marks Sombrero Reef, a great snorkeling spot just an hour's sail from our marina

A chain of low limestone and coral islands over 100 miles long ... connected by a highway? Marathon, in the middle keys, has quite a reputation among cruisers as an easy place to spend the winter, and since we'd never been there, we decided to give it a try. Not as party-crazy Key West, nor as crowded as the keys closer to Miami, we were delighted to find the spot had a casual, laid-back Caribbean island feel. At the same time, it had the convenience of not having to leave the US.  In fact, the convenience extended so far as being only a couple of hours drive (drive! from an island!) to Miami and all the consumer goods we would want. Yet like the Caribbean we had palm trees and sandy beaches and clear water for snorkeling or kayaking, and warm, dry weather.

Marathon is really a small town on a group of small islands (less than 10,000 people per the last census) with a population boom during the dry season. (a.k.a., winter, but there's no such thing as winter here, no snow or frost ever recorded.)  There are literally hundreds of boats anchored or on moorings in the harbor or docked in marinas, and a similar influx of RVs.  The look, I've learned a new word, is "keysie," -- kitschy with a tropical nonchalance. It has something of a casual 50s vibe, with million-dollar homes just a few blocks away from trailer parks, and everything just a few blocks from the ocean. It has concrete block buildings with paint faded by the tropical sun -- not ill-maintained, just that the combination of strong sun and salt spray isn't kind to finishes. I'm getting used to that 50s look in south Florida.  Even though the islands were reachable by Flagler's railroad that connected them to the mainland nearly 100 years ago, large numbers of year-round residents didn't settle until air conditioning became accessible at the individual house level ... which happened, not at all coincidentally, in the 1950s, and I recognize that influence in many of the buildings here. For the rest, it does feel like we're on an extended vacation.  Dressing up means wearing the nicer of your pairs of flipflops, and a chilly day means wearing a hoodie and long pants.

The island we're on, by the way, is Key Vaca.  Vaca -- Spanish for cow.  But we're not talking moo cows here, the "cow" is the sea cow, the nickname for the manatee.

The marina itself is wonderful as well. It's got a few amenities we love, a nice lounge, a gym where I can do my physical therapy workout routine, a pool, a restaurant/bar with a good happy hour, and because it's on the west end of the island, an unobstructed view of the sunset. Our slip has a fixed, somewhat stubby concrete finger pier, and a view of a mangrove-lined cove where we can watch pelicans crash-dive for their breakfast while we sit in the cockpit drinking coffee.   Walking distance to two nearby restaurants, one Mexican and one Greek, in addition to the one on the marina grounds, and an inexpensive taxi ride to the grocery store or the beach complete our little world for now.

Some sights:

Manatees love fresh water. After a rainstorm this guy was hanging out near the curb so he could catch the drips.

Great sunset views from our marina!

A pink limo? Really? Don't take yourself too seriously!

50s-style motel

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