Life's a Breeze in the Florida Keys

Imagine being a thousand feet up in the air, suspended between sea and sky, next to your special someone. A gentle breeze swings you back and forth. Above a colorful parachute, like a giant umbrella, holds you aloft. A long cable connects you to a speedboat—a tiny speck in the ocean far below.              

Welcome to parasailing. It’s as close to flying as you can get.

My husband, Peter, and I are soaring above Islamorada in the Florida Keys, kicking off a four-day island getaway. Our itinerary includes Keys-style R & R plus a healthy dose of adventure.

I’ll admit the idea of parasailing scared me at first, but Bert and Clayton, the friendly captain and first mate with All In Watersports, promised me it would be a breeze. They were right.

Flying up here high in the sky is a thrill. I’m glad I didn’t let my fears keep me on the ground. To me, traveling is all about leaving our comfort zone behind and testing our limits. So much of the time we think about the “What If’s” and avoid opportunities for letting loose and living in the moment. I learned long ago that when you let yourself go and shout “Yee-Ha” at the top of your lungs, you feel most alive.

The Keys are an excellent place to escape the ordinary and try new adventures. Add in sparkling pools, tiki bars, and salty sea breezes, and you have the ingredients for the perfect vacation. In fact, the Keys offer an ideal balance of thrill-a-minute excitement and easy-going relaxation. Join us on our Florida Keys getaway and then start planning your own!

TURTLE DREAMS
In many cultures, the turtle symbolizes patience, endurance, and determination. Some even say turtles represent wisdom, conveying a “Take life one step at a time” message of continuity. Turtles are also among the longest living animals, and a hospital in the Florida Keys is doing its best to ensure that these wise reptiles live long and healthy lives in spite of the dangers of swimming in the open water in the 21st century.

I remember the first time I saw a sea turtle paddling along the surface of the water. I was fishing in the Gulf of Mexico with my family when quite close to the boat, a giant turtle surfaced, his head poking above the water as if to say hello. I remember thinking he looked so wise and contented before he plunged back into the water, receding from sight the deeper he swam.

When Peter and I visit the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, we learn a lot about these creatures and how vulnerable they are to modern dangers. For example, many animals eat turtle eggs. Humans do as well—some cultures believe the eggs are an aphrodisiac. Hatchlings face their own struggles as they leave the nest, waddle down to the shore, and try to avoid predators as they brave the crashing waves to swim toward their future.

Grown turtles encounter a multitude of dangers—from boat propellers to garbage. Plastic bags look like jelly fish to turtles, and when ingested, the bags wreak havoc on the turtles’ digestive systems. Tumors, caused by water pollution, are another major problem. Many of these health issues require surgeries, which are performed at the hospital. We watch doctors examining a sick turtle during our tour. After surgery, it takes up to a year for the turtles to build up their immune systems before being released.

Much of the center’s work is caring for rehabilitating turtles, who swim around in different sized tanks as they grow healthier. Each has its name painted in white on the shell: Argus, Gwen, Sappy, Ziggy, and Spartacus. I love watching the healthier ones swim languidly in the blue water, their wise eyes watching us as we watch them. I imagine they dream about being free again, and the Turtle Hospital does its best to make their dreams come true.

Peter and I see lots of wildlife during our visit to the Keys. One afternoon we visit the Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center in Tavernier. The self-guided tours are donation based and lead through thickets of tropical foliage where cages contain birds whose flying days are behind them, due to injuries they’ve received. Known as hindered birds, those that end up at this sanctuary receive food and care and live enriched lives in these spaces where they need not worry about being preyed upon. We admire beautiful owls, falcons, hawks, royal terns, laughing gulls, pelicans, and more. It’s sad to read their stories and see that most of the injuries they’ve received are a result of boating accidents and collisions with cars.           

SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES
Our encounters with nature continue during a snorkel outing with Islamorada Dive Center. Peter and I accompany a boat full of deep sea divers, many of whom are just learning and taking their first open-water dives. I’ve never dived before, but after watching young kids do it, I decide that’ll be next on my list of adventures to try.

It’s a bit windy, so snorkeling conditions aren’t ideal, but Peter and I enjoy ourselves anyway. I mean what’s not to like about swimming in aqua-blue water as the sun shines down from a clear sky? While fish spotting is a bit difficult, once or twice I find myself surrounded by a school of beautiful silvery blue and yellow fish. I love swimming with the fishes!

Windy conditions also accompany us another afternoon when we take a half-day fishing trip with Robbies, an Islamorada business that offers a variety of excursions and boat rentals as well. Our captain tries valiantly to find a good spot to catch fish, and on the third try we do start reeling in some grunts, small pan fish that actually emit a grunting noise. You can have your catch prepared at the adjoining restaurant, The Hungry Tarpon, but Peter and I take ours back to our place and have our own little fish fry.

We’re staying at the Pines and Palms Resort in Islamorada in the honeymoon cottage and absolutely love it. The one-story cottage is set off to the side of the property and has its own yard, where you can sit under the palm trees and relish your own private view of the Atlantic. The vibe at Pines and Palms is Old Florida, and we love the nautical décor and peaceful vibe. The resort has a variety of accommodations—from more traditional hotel rooms to apartments with balconies and kitchens. Boaters enjoy the on-site ramp and docks, and guests gather every afternoon in the pool area for happy hour at the tiki bar and a refreshing dip.

Bikes are included with our package, so Peter and I venture out for lazy afternoon bike rides, exploring back streets and dreaming of selling everything and moving to the Keys. Everyone we meet says Islamorada is the best of the Keys because it’s more authentic and has a small-town vibe. Until this visit Peter and I passed by Islamorada, powering on down to Marathon or Key West. I’m glad to spend a few days getting to know this cozy Key.

One place you can always meet locals is, of course, at the local tiki bar, and there are plenty to choose from. We check out a couple and quickly decide Hog Heaven is our favorite. Their shady open-air bar out back offers a great view of the Atlantic. Lots of locals come by boat to enjoy their tasty bar fare and happy hour drink specials. Our parasailing buddies, Bert and Clayton, frequent this bar, so it’s fun running into them and pretending we’re locals.

Our last night—there’s always a last night when you’re on vacation—Peter and I celebrate our anniversary with a romantic dinner at Marker 88 in Islamorada. Our dockside table offers stunning views of the sunset, and we sip on fruity cocktails and watch as the glowing orange orb sinks into the lavender sky. For dinner we choose coconut shrimp and diver scallops, which are amazing. As the moon comes up behind us, we share a decadent dessert: molten chocolate cake with espresso ice cream. I feel like a turtle hatchling as we waddle back to the car.

One morning I get up early and go for a run along the feeder road. It’s warm and muggy—not my favorite conditions for running—but I am bound and determined to log a couple miles. As I huff and puff along, I greet people out for a morning stroll, many walking their dogs, and it feels nice to be part of this little community if only for a few days.

To me the best traveling experiences happen when you immerse yourself in a place. This happens when you make the effort to meet locals, find out what they do for a living, and learn about their passions. Islamorada’s low-key atmosphere and old-Florida vibe make it a perfect destination for your next getaway. Whether you’re into adventure, natural encounters, island-style dining, or chilling by the pool, you’ll find what you’re looking for in this cozy key—and friendly folks to boot!

For more information:
www.fla-keys.com
www.pinesandpalms.com
www.marker88.info
www.hogheavensportsbar.com
www.allinwatersports.com
www.islamoradadivecenter.com
www.robbies.com
For more of Peggy’s travel adventures, visit www.tidewaterwomen.com/travel

 

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Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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