Unlocking the Florida Keys

It’s often difficult to see where the sea starts and the sky ends while cruising along the Overseas Highway from Key Largo to Key West. Depending on the time of day, their blue hues seem to melt into one another. At other times their division is Rothko-linear; a distinct monochrome of azure and celeste. Both are a sight for sore, European-wintered eyes – as if someone just turned on the Technicolor. Add to this glorious mirage swathes of roadside savanna, nature reserves, rugged beaches, 1970s motels, trailer parks, diners, strip malls, pastel hamlets and brightly coloured fibreglass manatee, dolphin and lobster signage and it’s quite the mélange.

Photography by Eoin Higgins

The Florida Keys – an archipelago on the southernmost tip of the United States – are not just vibrant in colour but in spirit, too. On April 23 in 1982, the Keys declared “war” on the US in protest against its checkpoints for searching vehicles for narcotics and illegal immigrants from Cuba. Only, this war was more symbolic than bombastic and consisted of breaking a stale loaf of Cuban bread over the head of a man in naval uniform in declaration of “The Conch Republic” (conch – as in the sea snail – here pronounced “conk”). Remarkably, this faux secession and its subsequent column inches actually worked, the roadblocks disappearing literally overnight. More than 30 years on, the Conch Republic remains as fervent as ever, its self-declared sovereignty committed to bringing “Humour, Warmth and Respect” to an otherwise staunchly conservative Florida.

Advertisement

Photography by Eoin Higgins

This rebellious yet inclusive streak is no more evident than in Key West, some 250 kilometres from Miami International Airport via the aforementioned Overseas Highway, aka Route 1. It’s where drag bars and rainbow-coloured pedestrian crossings reign on raucous Duval Street, where wild chickens roam free and an open-minded ageing population rocks tie-dye. If Florida is God’s waiting room, then Key West is its last, groovy hoorah.

Photography by Eoin Higgins

This laid-back demographic, combined with beautiful, historic clapboard houses, courtyard cafés and a notable lack of big, chain brands, makes for a spirited mix. For a site-brewed cortadito, try Cuban Queen Coffee on Key Lime Square (cubancoffeequeen.com) or for dinner with a generous dollop of people-watching, the Victorian-listed front porch of Grand Café, run by Irish owner Maria Wevers (grandcafekeywest.com). For excellently curated reads, browse the delightful Books and Books on Easton Street (booksandbookskw.com), while literary fiends won’t leave town without visiting the new Tennessee Williams Museum (twkw.org) and Ernest Hemingway House (hemingwayhome.com), whose 50+ polydactyl cats are easily outnumbered by sweaty tourists pouring into the writer’s zealously air-conditioned former home.

Photography by Eoin Higgins

Advertisement

This is an excerpt from the April/May issue of Cara magazine, the inflight publication of Aer Lingus – to read more, check out the feature on board planes now and online at https://issuu.com/caraaugust/docs/cara_apr_may_2018_low_res.

The image newsletter