Florida Keys Jaunt

by Mary Kleiss
(Port Charlotte, Fl)

On a warm, sunny Miami day in 1959 Dad decided that we should take a day trip to the Florida Keys. From Miami it really wasn’t that long of a jaunt and my sister and I were excited to see more of old Florida. We headed down US 1 (the old Dixie Highway), passed Homestead and after an eighteen mile stretch reached Upper Key Largo. From thereon the road becomes the Overseas Highway.

The keys are a chain of rocky islands. The upper part of the keys are the bony skeleton of an ancient coral reef, while the lower keys are formed of egg-shaped limestone particles cemented together in a form of rock called Miami oolite.

Early settlers came from the Bahamas where the queen conch was a staple food, and still is in the keys, hence the name “Conchs” for descendants and residents. For most, it’s no longer an insult to be called a conch although a friend of mine born and raised there detests it.

We were all looking forward to going over the seven-mile bridge, but Dad’s first destination was The Theater of the Sea on Windley Key. We spent several hours there riding on a pontoon boat through a lake of porpoises and afterwards enjoying the Museum’s extensive marine exhibits.

The keys have a long history. The Caloosa Indians were the dominant power in South Florida, including the keys, when Spanish explorers reached this area. Spanish slave trades and diseases wiped them out in 1763. Key West was the first permanent settlement in 1822 and was originally called Cayo Hueso or Bone Island due to all the sun bleached skeletons littering the ground of one island discovered by a Spanish explorer following in the footsteps of Ponce de Leon. The name was later anglicized to Key West.

After the Theater of the Sea, we girls were starving. You’ll never go hungry in the keys! There’s one grill after another and all serving pompano, snapper, dolphin and spiny lobster (crawfish), along with the best dessert in Florida---Key Lime pie. Dad wanted us to try turtle soup, but we declined, although years later I tasted it and loved it. I’ve been looking for turtle soup on local market shelves, but haven’t located it yet.

Finally, after the three-mile bridge and passing through Marathon, we came to the seven-mile bridge. It’s kind of scary going over the bridge but looking out over the beautiful, constantly changing colors of the blue waters tranquilizes you. We stopped at Bahia Honda State Park with one of the finest natural beaches in the keys, and then started our trek back home.

Among the interesting facts I learned about the Florida Keys on the trip was that many of the keys grew succulent pineapples that were shipped out to New York by schoonerloads. Unfortunately the Cuban pineapple industry, and later Hawaii, forced the keys pineapple off the market.

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