Anything goes in these tropical islands—an enchanting place where seeking pleasure becomes the number-one priority. It’s why I escape to the Keys as often as I can: to spoil myself with the good life. Here I let the island breezes wash over me as I languish under a palm tree. Above rustling fronds whisper, and a soothing fountain splashes nearby. In the distance a fishing boat passes through the channel, its engine chugging as it glides through turquoise waters. Beyond the channel, the Atlantic spreads southward from horizon to horizon, a smooth, glassy mirror that reflects the soft hues of a velvety blue sky.
In fact, everywhere I turn a painting meets my gaze, like a canvas unveiled by a confident artist. Even inches from where I lie, brilliant tropical plants in fiery shades of red and gold against a lush green backdrop create yet another still life for me to savor. I sip my frosty beverage, close my eyes, and doze as the tinkling sounds of steel drums playing down by the lagoon carry my thoughts far away.
I dream of island hopping on a gleaming catamaran with my husband and sons. In my fantasy I home school the boys a few hours a week, but we learn more than books can teach about nature, culture, and history while sailing the seas. We fish for dinner and listen to mellow Jack Johnson tunes as the lapping waves and gently flapping sails provide back-up rhythm. In my fantasy my family and I sail into a colorful sunset every evening, thankful to explore the wondrous world together.
SEEKING AN ESCAPE
I snap back to the present, but keep my fantasy close at hand. In fact, I plan to devote lots of time to daydreaming during my four-day visit to the Keys. I’m staying at Hawk’s Cay, a sixty-acre resort about halfway between Key Largo and Key West. Just to the south is Marathon, the second largest city in the Keys and one I got to know pretty well when friends of mine resided there. Sad to say, they relocated to the mainland (“tired of hurricanes,” they said), so it’s been five years since I got a Keys’ fix. It’s good to be here.
The vibe in the Middle Keys is different from the frenetic pace of Key West. It’s slower, calmer: a waltz instead of hip-hop. While Key West has its own charms, folks around here are seeking an escape from the faster currents, slowing way down to a leisurely paddle. Everyone I meet is on island time. Don’t worry, be happy is the mantra for visitors to Hawk’s Cay, where you’ll find whatever you need to enjoy a vacation in paradise.
You can opt for a few days of laid-back attitude adjustment and lounge around the lagoon or hang out poolside. Or visit Indies Spa, where 7,000 square feet of pampering pleasure are at your disposal. If you prefer a more active vacation, choose from a variety of wet-and-wild water sports or resort activities. On my visit I decide to do a little of everything: some serious downtime complimented by snorkeling, sailing, and the highlight of my visit, a swim with the dolphins at the resort’s on-site dolphin facility.
First things first: where’s the pool? Actually there are five pools at Hawk’s Cay. I like the adult pool next to the Atlantic, where cool breezes offer an antidote to the ninety-degree temps. For families the resort’s main pool offers plenty of room for swimming and sunning. Beyond is the shallow saltwater lagoon that lets cool water from the ocean in but keeps larger fish out. Ringed by sandy beaches, it’s the perfect place for kids to build sandcastles and romp in the water.
Hawk’s Cay is an awesome destination for families. Besides water sports, the resort features special activities, such as glow-in-the-dark volleyball, dive-in movies, and kids-night out. Parents can also sign children up for the Little Pirates Club (ages 4-5) or the Island Adventures Club (ages 6-11). Supervised activities include games, arts and crafts, swimming, and sports. There’s also a playground and an interactive pool by the kids’ clubhouse with a pirate ship and cannons that spout water.
Accommodations at Hawk’s Cay are suited for families, couples, or groups of friends. Villas with one-, two-, and three-bedrooms feature a balcony or porch and a fully equipped kitchen. Most have stunning views. You can also stay at the Inn at Hawk’s Cay in a spacious room overlooking the pool or tropical gardens. Four full-service restaurants serve a variety of menu options. My favorite is Porto Cayo, where Caribbean flavors join forces with Mediterranean cuisine. After trying a cup of refreshing lobster bisque one evening, I order herb-grilled rack of lamb with a pomegranate demi-glace accompanied by risotto and savory vegetables. It’s a perfect marriage of textures and flavors, and I relish every bite.
Breakfast is served in the Palm Terrace buffet style, and each morning I indulge in my favorites: smoked salmon with capers and onions, luscious fresh tomatoes and cool cottage cheese, and Eggs Benedict with a lemony Hollandaise that’s the best I’ve ever tasted. Fresh-squeezed orange juice and steaming hot coffee provide additional fuel for the day’s activities. I’ll need it.
Now comes the hard part: figuring out what to do. I decide to join a snorkeling excursion aboard Island Time with Captain Dave and twenty or so passengers. We cruise out to a reef five miles south of Hawk’s Cay called Coffin Patch. Legend has it that a boat carrying coffins sank here, but Capt. Dave says all we’ll see are the remains of an old lighthouse.
Jason, the first mate, passes out snorkel gear, and after donning my fins and mask, I dive into the warm waters of the Atlantic and suddenly find myself surrounded by dozens of Little Nemo look-alikes. As my eyes focus underwater, I see they’re actually not clownfish, but a type of damselfish called sergeant majors, cute little fellows with black and yellow stripes. I’m mesmerized as they swim inches from my face. They seem to be as curious about me as I am about them.
That’s what I love about snorkeling: the experience of entering another dimension, one that’s inhabited by creatures we never see, yet they’re right under our noses. I could spend hours here, swimming through the crystal clear water, watching the fish, like sparkling jewels, dart in every direction. On the bottom a coral reef offers hiding places for these colorful creatures. It’s dotted with clumps of brain coral and purple sea fans that wave at me as I swim by.
Too soon two blasts of the ship’s horn signal it’s time to go. As we head back to the marina at Hawk’s Cay, a flying fish splashes across the ocean’s surface in a joyous dance, glittering in the afternoon sun. It’s as if he’s reminding us to celebrate life, especially down here in this magical setting, where the sea and the sky blend into an intoxicating cocktail, a recipe that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
The magic continues the next evening when I board Horizon, a 40-foot catamaran, for a sunset cruise with Captain Dale and his first mate, Jessica. The breeze beckons as we motor through the channel, and cumulus clouds to the west promise an extraordinary show. But first we sail southward, zipping along at about ten knots, the sun warm and the breeze refreshing. Jessica offers wine, beer, soda, and champagne to guests, and soon we’re all becoming acquainted, sharing a sense of adventure on the high seas. Someone’s hat blows overboard, and we’re all sorry for his loss, chuckling and remembering when the same thing happened to us. We take photos of each other and talk about music and life and family. By journey’s end as the sun sets in a pink and orange neon sky, we’re sad to pull up to the dock and bid goodbye to our sunset friends.
The following day I make new friends in the water—six of them, in fact: Allie, April, Balla, Nemo, Sebastian, and Wilson. My friends are bottle-nosed dolphins, residents of a beautiful lagoon at Hawk’s Cay and participants in the Dolphin Connection, a program that lets visitors interact with dolphins both from dockside and in the water. I’m signed up for Dolphin Discovery and can’t wait to enjoy an up-close encounter with these giant, gentle creatures.
First Stacy, one of the trainers, goes over a few safety rules designed to protect both the dolphins and the guests. She explains that even though these dolphins are used to humans, they are still wild animals and need to be treated with care and respect. She continues to discuss a few points about the Florida Keys ecosystem, and then we’re finally allowed to put on our life jackets and meet the dolphins.
I’m joined by Bobby and Emily Lyerly, a brother and sister from Destin. Big smiles fill their faces as we line up in the water to meet April, who’s actually the mother of some of the other dolphins. The trainer invites us to pet April, and I’m surprised at how much she feels like hard rubber—and by how immense she is. Stretching to a length of eight feet or so, April dwarfs us humans, but she acts like a big puppy, playful and happy to be the center of attention.
I’m hoping that swimming with the dolphins will be part of the program, but Stacy explains that it’s simply not healthy for dolphins to tow humans holding onto their dorsal fins. Luckily, lots of other activities are included in Dolphin Discovery. I get to pet, hug, kiss, tickle, feed, scratch, splash, and dance with the dolphins. The experience is exhilarating, although tightly scripted. No time for mystical interactions with these sweet beasts. The only unscripted event is when one of the cute little sergeant majors takes a liking to a freckle on my leg and decides to give it a nibble. Ouch!
On the morning of my last day at Hawk’s Cay, I find a mystical encounter of another kind: a hot stone massage in the peaceful environs of Indies Spa. Under the capable hands of Mary-Rachel, I drift off into another daydream and find myself wandering through a hot desert. In the distance an oasis with palm trees and cool shade calls my name. Once there I lie down on a cushioned bed and feel the magic of the stones smoothing my cares away.
Sadly the stones soon stop, the daydream ends, and I reluctantly say goodbye to Mary-Rachel. Fortunately, I don’t have far to go. I’m spending my final afternoon by the pool, where I melt into a comfortable lounge chair in a shady spot overlooking the ocean. As I look southward over the Atlantic, I see white sails way off in the distance. I recall my island-hopping fantasy and consider the possibility of making it come true.
This happens to me whenever I come to the Keys. Something gets into my soul, my wires cross—or maybe they become uncrossed—and all of a sudden, I’m ready to run away from the real world.
I don’t. I return to my responsible life, where I own a business, keep house, ferry kids to soccer practices—do all those things expected of me. But look out! One day the urge will become too strong to ignore. Then that will be me under the white sails slowly disappearing over the edge of the horizon.
• Visit www.hawkscay.com or call 800-432-2242. Hawk’s Cay Resort (MM 61) also welcomes groups for meetings, family reunions, and weddings.
• Getting there: I flew into Miami and rented a car. It’s about a two-hour drive to Hawk’s Cay. You can also opt fly into Key West (about a 75-minute drive) or fly directly to Marathon Airport, just eight miles south of the resort.
WHAT TO DO IN MARATHON
I’m happy to find Marathon and environs haven’t changed much since my last visit five years ago. It’s true that Hurricane Wilma came through with a vengeance in October 2005, and clean up and renovation continue, but overall it’s business as usual. If you have time to explore the area, here are a few recommended outings:
• Crane Point Museums and Nature Center (MM 50) – Learn about natural history, explore a historic home, walk on nature trails, and enjoy an interactive children’s museum. Visit www.cranepoint.org or call 305-743-9100.
• Pigeon Key (MM 47) – Enjoy a free hike along part of the old Seven-Mile Bridge or hop in a trolley to Pigeon Key, where history buffs will enjoy learning about Henry Flagler and his efforts to build a railway to Key West. Call 305-289-0225.
• Curry Hammock State Park (MM 56) – Enjoy a secluded beach, nature trails, camping, and picnic facilities. Visit www.floridastateparks.org/curryhammock or call 305-289-2690.
• The Island Fish Co. – (MM 54) This picturesque restaurant features the largest tiki bar I’ve ever seen and is one of the best spots for watching the sunset. Try the grilled shrimp tacos for a tasty treat. Visit www.islandfishco.com or call 305-743-4191.