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Gwinnett Daily Post

Florida Keys offer inspiring experiences

By Robert J. Nebel

Staff Correspondent

When Ernest Hemingway arrived in Key West more than 75 years ago, little did he know that he was the catalyst behind establishing a writer’s haven. Scores of aspiring authors followed in his footsteps. Scenes of sea gulls hovering over warm blue waters while pines blow gently in the wind are more than enough for an author like Hemingway to produce classics. While we might never see the likes of this genius again, we do know that many successful writers like Judy Blume and Nancy Friday have also found success here.

Getting there

The Florida Keys can be accessed by flying directly into Ft. Lauderdale or Miami, then renting a car for the 170-mile drive. Veterans of this journey including Joe Koshuta, who operates the Web site, suggest taking the Florida Turnpike to get around the heavy local traffic. Be prepared to pay tolls. When you hit Homestead, you may take the popular U.S. Route 1 to Key West. But if you are looking to experience the essence of the Keys, you must ask, “What would Hemingway do?” Most likely, he would take the long way home via Card Sound Road.

Perfect hideaways

Just one mile off of the Florida Turnpike, Card Sound Road provides ample opportunity to see the natural habitat of the Keys. “‘The Keys Experience’ is richer and better the more you venture off the main road,” said Carol Shaughnessy, a writer and Florida Keys resident. The sparsely populated Card Sound Road leads you to Alabama Jack’s, the sole restaurant on this route. Munch on delicious conch fritters while viewing the manatees that swim up near the eatery. If you are not in the mood for this popular delicacy and would like to try something else on the menu, many, including Shaughnessy, urge visitors to talk with the locals. “Do not limit your experience when visiting, meet our diverse group of creative people who are as warm as the weather,” Shaughnessy explained.

Back to Route 1

After visiting Alabama Jack’s you will head southwest on Route 905, which eventually joins U.S. Route 1. The Key Largo Hammocks Botanical State Park is located at the intersection of these two routes. Guided nature hikes are conducted through this treasure trove of endangered plant and animal species. These tours are led by rangers from the nearby John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park who are on hand Thursdays and Sundays. The Pennekamp park itself is home to excellent fishing, camping, swimming and picnicking opportunities. Snorkeling, scuba and glass bottom tours are also available as well as boat rentals.

While on this scenic route, stop at the Gallery at Kona Kai, one of South Florida’s most unique collections of artwork. The gallery, located within a premier resort, features the works of nature photographer Clyde Butcher, ship captain turned painter Dirk Derdoom and many other artists from around the world. Resort owners Joe and Veronica Harris are art collectors who have been devoted to their gallery as well as their property for several years. “The art gallery is an absolute gem,” said Carol Shaughnessy. “It only adds to your off-the-beaten-path experience.” Between Key Largo and Islamorada is the historic district of Tavernier. This is the site of an historic hotel that survived a hurricane in 1935. Steeped in history, the Tavernier is a welcoming place to check in. It also houses a quaint, family-friendly restaurant called The Copper Kettle.

When you finally hit Islamorada, the centerpiece of a group of islands called the “purple isles,” it is a sight to see the Windley Key Quarry Fossil Reef State Geologic Site. The inside of a fossilized coral reef is just one of the many wonders that is a part of the Keys’ natural beauty.

Islamorada is also known for the Pioneer Cemetery, the site of an angel statue that survived the hurricane of 1935.

Key West’s best-kept secrets

Away from the commercial gateway to Key West is the Botanical Garden on Stock Island. This is an excellent spot for bird and butterfly watchers. More exotic plant and animal life can be found at West Martello Tower as well as Nancy’s Secret Garden, an out-of-the way habitat that is worth seeing.

The Florida Keys can be desribed as laid back and unpretentious. It is where the sun is warm and the drinks are cold in a setting that makes you forget all of your troubles. Writer Carol Shaughnessy summed it up best when she said, “Life in the Keys puts you in harmony with the natural world.”