Crossing the seven mile bridge with the roof down and the radio turned up – now that’s the way to see Florida, says Jane Labous
I’ve just been handed a pint, a pint, of mango daiquiri decorated with a pink paper umbrella, a cocktail cherry and a spray of silvery green foil. The waiter grins at my obvious trepidation.
“This is Florida,” he says vivaciously. “Everything’s bigger here.”
He’s right of course. Even my car is bigger than normal - a shiny new Chrysler Sebring with a roof that slides back, Knightrider-style, at the touch of a button. I stretch my legs out in the sun as I drive, reading the billboards and the shopfronts: ALL YOU CAN EAT FOR $5, TARPON FISHING: NEXT RIGHT, and, more surreal, PLEASURE EMPORIUM – Florida’s largest love boutique.
This is Highway 1, not route 66, yet that sense, Hopperesque, of seeing America by road is the same. It’s the only proper way to do it after all, as the radio beats out a steady stream of classic rock and the Florida sun hurtles down, bigger, brasher and brighter than anywhere else.
It’s been the same for decades. Kerouac, Hemingway, DH Lawrence; they all fell in love with Florida’s heady mix of surreality and sunshine and flocked down here for the laidback lifestyle, the cocktails, the cigars. The famous seven mile bridge is just a run of concrete, a rather monstrous edifice stretching all the way from the outer reaches of Miami to Key West, the southernmost point in America and a mere 30 miles off the coast of Cuba.
It should be ugly but, as I trundle along it in a stream of traffic, past the many tiny islands which make up this all-American archipelago, I have to agree that it has a charm of its own. For even in America, at once the most civilised and the most restrictive of lands (waiter to bikini-clad guest, in a beach café on the sand: “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to put your pants on ma’am; this is a family restaurant...”), there are only two lanes across the seven mile bridge. If there’s an accident the entire Keys traffic system comes to a standstill, a fact which has singlehandedly prevented crime on the islands – there’s nowhere, frankly, for a getaway car to go.
Down in Duck Key, a tranquil, laidback spot halfway along the Keys coast, it’s all about water. Fishermen are everywhere, men in khaki jackets escaping for the weekend, lugging rods and nets and giant fishing bags spilling with equipment. There are families on holiday, entertaining themselves in the swimming pools and by the dolphins, who induce utter delight in everyone they encounter.
Down here there’s none of Miami's brash bling. Instead there are manatees, turtles, giant tarpon fish and a host of other wildlife, rambling mangrove swamps full of birds, miles and miles of sparkling sea. Ripened, flip-flopped holidaymakers indolently sip frozen cocktails; children raid the salad bar; a couple quietly gets engaged and a flurry of applause ripples through the restaurant. She’s called Dolly and they met six weeks ago; she wasn’t expecting it. That’s the rumour anyway and somehow it seems normal that I know their story and that it resembles something out of a cheap television movie.
Heading south, the ocean on either side of the highway takes on that tropical, brilliant turquoise sheen; the sand gets whiter and less populated; the sunset, always spectacular, blushes deep tropical crimson. Stopping for lunch, I find a Bob Marley lookalike crooning out Santana as the heat of the day beats down. I order iced water, frozen mojitos, grilled king prawns and a plate of raw, ceviched tuna.
Later, as the afternoon drifts away and I motor on south towards Key West and, across the water, South America, the car radio crackles and a cuban presenter muscles in on my rock channel with a babble of Spanish.
Eventually I hit Key West, a happy little town of infinite weekends, where the sun always shines and everyone is always on holiday. It’s both laid back and vaguely crazy, with its souvenir shops selling kitsch flamingos and slogan t-shirts; its pink taxis and its dudes dancing in the street at lunchtime (I pass them, rocking mildly to the strains of Billie Jean emanating from a diner doorway).
Weirdly, it’s stylish too – Hemingway’s small, chic villa is a homage to his second wife’s career at Vogue. Duval Street, which cuts through the middle of the town towards the port, is cluttered with art-deco buildings, pretty cafés sporting painted balconies decorated with pots of tumbling bougainvillea. And, venturing down the quieter backstreets, I find a twist of the south, as chickens roam the streets and the smell of brewing coffee and tobacco drifts across the picket fences of the candy-coloured houses.
I find lots of exclusive little galleries selling paintings and sculptures by local artists, quirky furniture and artefacts, not to mention the Key Lime pie shops selling cooking sauces, sweets and desserts all linked with the ubiquitous green fruit. Key Westers are proud of their signature dessert, a wincingly sweet cheesecake topping on a crumble of a biscuit base - it plays a starring role on just about every menu this side of Miami.
Here at my journey’s end I leave the car and spend long, hot days snorkelling and watching the fishermen bring in their catch. I read The Old Man And The Seaon the beach as the motor boats buzz by and the waiter offers frozen lime margeritas.
In the evenings I go to Sloppy Joe’s, Hemingway’s favourite bar. A bottle of wine is good company, said the writer once, in his characteristically terse prose. No doubt he was talking about a bottle of chilled white at dusk in Key West, as the hot globe of the sun sinks behind the sea and the crickets begin to chirp and the tropical afternoon cools into the long languid evening, full of promise and pleasure.
First published in BBC Homes & Antiques magazine.