Quirky, quaint and downright curious: on a self-drive tour of the Florida Keys, Pippa Jacks finds it impossible not to relax
If you must have the misfortune of getting lost in a dodgy part of downtown Miami, driving an unfamiliar car, then there are certain vehicles in which you have a better chance of blending in.
Unfortunately, a canary yellow convertible Mustang – with the top down and suitcases on the back seat – is not one of them, and my female friend and I are suddenly starting to feel very conspicuous.
It’s a wonder we even made it out of the airport: our Mustang is so huge and button-laden, it’s like driving a spaceship, and we had to do several practice laps of the car-park (much to the amusement of the Avis attendants).
With stress-levels sky high, I frantically scour a clutch of maps while we crawl around a dilapidated housing estate, trying to look as bad-ass as we possibly can.
After heading in the wrong direction more than half an hour, I realise I’ve mis-spelt “Islamorada” on the sat-nav, and we start heading in the right direction (south) on US Highway 1.
“Looks like you girls need a glass of champagne,” the receptionist at Cheeca Lodge sympathises, as we collapse into the chairs at the check-in desk, visibly traumatised. Never has a glass of bubbles been imbibed so quickly.
Happily, it is impossible to remain tense at Cheeca Lodge for long, and when we wake at 5.30am, throw open the balcony door, and lay eyes on the turquoise sea for the first time, we’re almost grateful for the jet lag that’s awoken us so early.
And we decide to iron out any last vestiges of tension with a smug sunrise yoga session in the gardens by the pool.
In good company
I’m not the first visitor to have come to Cheeca Lodge to relax: it first opened in 1946, and framed photos in the lobby display some of the hotel’s high-profile guests, including golfer Jack Nicklaus and former president George Bush Senior.
It’s one of the larger hotels in sleepy Islamorada, which is a collection of smaller islands, covering 20 of the archipelago’s 130 miles.
Fishing is one of the biggest attractions of the Florida Keys, with sailfish, marlin, tuna and kingfish coming close to the shore, while the “backcountry” flats teem with tarpon and bonefish.
Today I’m more interested in eating fish than catching it, and lunch upon crunchy, coconut-crusted shrimp at Islamorada Fish Company - a decidedly kitsch restaurant over the marina, with huge plastic marlin dangling from the rafters.
There are few natural sand beaches in the Keys (some hotels buy it in), but the fact the coral Keys offer such rich dive sites so close
to shore explains their appeal to divers and snorkellers.
You don’t need to be a diver to enjoy Islamorada’s History of Diving museum though: a funny little attraction that I have almost to myself, where I spend a fascinating two hours discovering how diving techniques and equipment have developed across the centuries.
Quirky attractions is something the Keys does very well, from tours of the old city morgue in Key West, to Jules’ Undersea Lodge on Key Largo, where guests can spend the night in an underwater capsule.
And the Keys have attracted more than their fair share of writers, hippies and odd-balls over the years, thanks to its relaxed Caribbean vibe (Key West is closer to Cuba than to Miami).
More recently, they’ve attracted Hollywood, with the drama Bloodline, starring Sissy Spacek and Kyle Chandler, being filmed at Islamorada’s exclusive resort, The Moorings.