Looking Down at Paradise: The Florida Keys

May 12, 2008

To really understand Key West and the Florida Keys, you have to start by looking down at them.  It’s a view that never gets old.

Fortunately most guests and visitors do start out their vacations with this view.  Commercial airlines fly from Miami and Fort Lauderdale to Key West in less than an hour.

The islands extend out over a hundred miles from South Florida into the sea. Only 90 miles from Cuba, Key West is closer to Havana than it is to Miami. And the islands brings vacationers some of the greatest diving, snorkeling, fishing, and sight-seeing possible in the United States. The Florida Keys are home to North America’s only living reef.

Although you can get to Key West by driving (its connected to mainland Florida by over forty bridges) its awesome when viewed from an airplane!

See more at 123FloridaKeys.com

Looking Down at Paradise – The Florida Keys, originally uploaded by Key West Baseball.

Where Do You Go On Vacation, When You Live in Key West?

April 29, 2008

Everyone asks us:  Where do you vacation?

When we moved to the Florida Keys, one of the top vacation destinations in Florida, we didn’t think vacations were going to be a problem.  After all, everything the Keys have to offer us is just a short trip by car or boat:

  • Key West – the history, the nightlife, the beaches, the eclectic shopping, the sunset, the bars, the eclectic people
  • the Reef
  • the offshore fishing
  • the Backcountry
  • the water sports
  • nature walks
  • the festivals and holidays
  • snorkeling and SCUBA diving
  • kayaking
  • bicycling
  • the secluded islands
  • the restaurants
  • the bars
  • “swim with the dolphins”
  • the Turtle Hospital
  • Marathon
  • Key Largo
  • Bahia Honda Beach
  • Fort Zachary Taylor
  • Sunset Cruises
  • the Dry Tortugas

But residents of this vacation community do run out of things to do.

So we went to Hawaii and visited the Islands.  Yeah they have a bit more sand, and a little less backcountry, but the reef in the Florida Keys, particularly Looe Key, is prettier.  The air temperature and pleasant humidity was identical to Key West, but the ocean water much colder.  So why did we just spend 18 hours in airports and on planes getting to place not much different from back home?

And we went to the Everglades and took the mandatory boat ride through the mangroves.  And the tram ride and walks along the rivers.  But other than the occasional American alligator which don’t gravitate to the Keys, it was a lot like home.  Beautiful wildlife – herons, gulls, hawks and hundreds of other birds and animals – just like home in the Florida Keys.

And then we took the obligatory trip to Orlando, which deserves its own page.  But hardly worth a trip back.

All in all, coming home to Key West and the Florida Keys was the best part of all these vacations away – there’s no place like home!

More at: http://123FloridaKeys.com

The Pink Car

April 21, 2008

“Not the pink one!” I thought, softly to myself.

It was Christopher’s fourth birthday, and we were making a quick stop at the local store to pick up some last minute cups and plates and stuff for his party.

He asked “May I get one?” as he looked at the alluring display of toy cars.

“Of course!”  It was his birthday.  How could I say “No.”

But as his hand reached out, I thought again.  “Not the pink one!”

It’s not that I have anything against pink.  I’m old enough to remember when pink was a fashionable color for guys.  The fashionable color for guys!  Cool guys.  Any guy.  Every guy.  And I don’t mean the color salmon!  I mean pink!  I’m pretty sure it was a complement back in the 70’s when a girlfriend said to me in a soft voice “Pink is definitely your color!”  Well… I hope it wasn’t just the shirt.  But yeah… Pink did kind of bring out my tan!

But back to my four-year-old son.

My wife and I tried hard to raise him without an obvious gender-bias.  We had a “no-gun” policy for his first couple years, until he started a make-shift battle with sticks with another two-year-old standing in line at a dinner buffet.  Christopher couldn’t even talk yet, but he could “pshht” [feigning a bullet sound] with the best of them.

Where did they pick this up?  How do they learn these things.  “Boys are different,” we slowly concluded as we watched Christopher develop.  I concluded that playing “Cops ‘n Robbers” with my brother with toy guns didn’t cause an abnormal affinity to guns for of us.  I never even fired a real one until I was over thirty!  So, why should it affect Christopher.  Going forward, starting with a squirt gun, Christopher had his share of guns to play with.

But I also never discouraged Christopher from picking up and playing with dolls.  Or from choosing “pink”.  “It was definitely his color.”  It was bright and attracted his eye.  And nobody had ever told him “Pink is for girls.  Blue is for boys.”  And he wasn’t going to learn it now, I hoped.  It was his birthday!  But as he continued his reach for a car, I thought again, a little louder to myself, “Not the pink one!”

Regardless of my unexpressed wish, Christopher picked up the pink car and put it on the counter.  I paid for it and we went home.

It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes after we got home when one of Christopher’s uncles said “Pink?” in a mock surprise and disapproving tone.  I tried to shake my head and get his attention without Christopher seeing me.  “Let it go!” I said without words.  “Don’t say anything!”  But the Uncle ignored my panicked gestures in the background and just repeated “A pink car???”

Christopher looked at his uncle, but said nothing.  And within a few hours the pink car was abandoned forever, as dozens of other birthday presents took its place.  I don’t think he even remembers it.  But I do…

Not surprisingly, soon Christopher lost his affinity to pink.  And soon after that, on the last day of kindergarten, he asked me if he could throw away his “Winnie-the-Pooh” tee shirt.  I let him, but it was sad.  Did I really have to to watch him grow up in this stifling peer pressure of kindergarten classmates and insensitive uncles?  I always wondered what was said to make him discard his favorite shirt.  And it wasn’t even pink.

Favorite color?  He didn’t learn it from me.  But ask him his favorite color today.  I assure you that you won’t hear “Pink!”


April 18, 2008

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A Fish with Legs Discovered in the Everglades

April 15, 2008



I can see the tabloid headings now, as soon as they find this picture: A Fish with Legs Discovered by a Computer in the Everglades!

I’ve taken over 50,000 pictures since we moved to the Florida Keys.  A small percentage make it out to be displayed on the mantel, or shared with family and friends.  But most remain hidden away in the “virtual shoe box” I call my hard drive.

I’ve recently tried out an automatic tagging service.  Wouldn’t it be great if those 50,000 pictures on Flickr were magically cataloged.  Then when I need one of my photos of a “beautiful sunset in Key West” all I would have to do is type it in, and “bingo” – I’d only have to look through about 2,000 pictures I’ve taken of the beautiful sunsets (and sunrises) in Key West…  and Cudjoe Key… and the rest of the Florida Keys… and the rest of Florida… and Alaska…  Alright, maybe the service will notice the mountains in the picture and know that picture wasn’t taken in Key West.

So I tried it out!  After the service cataloged some 38,000 of my photos, I typed in “fish”.  The first picture the service pulled up was a river in the Everglades.  It was kind of cool shot, but I had quickly discarded it into the “virtual shoe box” as somewhat mundane and ordinary.

But now the photo looked a little more interesting.  And I might have never found this neat picture if I weren’t looking for a picture of a “fish”.

Isn’t technology wonderful?  Wonder what will come up if I search for “turtle”?

Key West? Yes! Miami? Yes! Cudjoe Key? Never heard of it!

April 10, 2008

When we first started looking to buy our vacation rental property in the Florida Keys, I sought the advice of family and friends.  Even strangers.

I’m a great believer in seeking multiple opinions.  “If two people agree all the time, one of them is unnecessary.”  I like to hear competing and conflicting opinions.  Then I’ll make an informed, and hopefully great, decision.

After quickly ruling out the Northeast and Central States as a desirable year-round vacation destination, we flew down to Miami’s South Beach and started driving down the coast on the Overseas Highway towards Key West.

We agreed on what we were looking for:  Price and location were not as important as the “Wow!”.  It also had to be a good investment.  It doesn’t make any sense to buy a vacation rental with great “Wow!” which will end up in foreclosure.  

We were almost at the end of our journey, and it looked like we would be coming up empty handed.  The end of the road was literally just a few miles away.  Then we stopped at these vacation rental cottages on Cudjoe Key.  From the dock we looked out at the ocean and the offshore islands, and we both said “Wow!”  Then we walked through the main house and looked around, and again said “Wow!”  Then we walked into one of the conch cottages.  They were built in the 1920’s and had survived the continuous battering of a heartless ocean.  But the previous owners had started a loving renovation.  And we found character in the cottages that had been missing from the motels and hotels we were staying in and other properties we looked at.  The cottages had earned the right to live on. 

These cottages had survived the the Great Depression, the Great Hurricane of 1935 that wiped out most of the Florida Keys and the Flagler Railroad, and the other hurricanes that pummeled Cudjoe Key and Key West and the other islands in the Lower Florida Keys through the latter half of the 20th century.  These “conch cottages” had a quality and spirit that was missing from all the vacation homes we had seen.  Most houses in the Florida Keys were built during the last 50 years with a flimsy almost cardboard feel.  They are cheaply built and easily replaced when they wash away.   The “conch cottages” on Cudjoe Key were built before these pre-fabricated stilt homes took over the landscape.  You some how know they will be here years after we are gone.  

Miraculously nature had spared these little houses, as storm surge after surge washed all of their neighbors away.  The cottages could never be built today – but as long as nature left them standing – no one would take them away.  And the vacation homes are properly zoned to allow vacation rentals.

“Gosh,” I thought, “Hemingway passed by these cottages on his way to Key West.  Maybe he visited friends who were staying here.  Maybe he seven slept here,”  I though with a smile.  I thought I could almost hear the long gone Overseas Railroad blowing its whistle in the distance. 

“Wow!  This is it!”  my wife said.  Now we just have to work out the finances.  The Realtor overheard us, and smiled.  I think she started dreaming of sitting behind the wheel of that sporty red car back on the dealer’s lot.  She could smell the commission money in her hand.  A couple months and it looked like that car would be sitting in her driveway.

But soon we were back in New York, surrounded by family, mentors and confidants, most of them trying to talk us out of buying the vacation rental property.  One of them, Howard, said “What?  Where?  Cudjoe Key?  Never heard of it!  Key West?  Yes!  Miami?  Yes!  Cudjoe Key?  Never heard of it!  Who is going to want to vacation on Cudjoe Key?  Why would anyone vacation on Cudjoe Key?”

We talked it over.  The money was a lot.  I tried in futility to explain.  And we seemed to be at the top of the Real Estate market market – no where to go but down.  It didn’t make sense economically.  It was not a great financial investment.  No one, except maybe Uncle Vinny, thought it was a good idea.  This was becoming an emotional decision, not a financial one.  It was a heroic decision, not a sensible one.

We talked some more.  “Remember, it has the ‘Wow!'” my wife reminded me.

So against the advice of Howard, one of the most savvy (and richest) real estate investors we knew, we bought the vacation rental property on a tiny, almost unknown island in the Florida Keys: Cudjoe Key.  We packed up the family and drove south as far as we possibly could. 

And this started a strange and wonderful adventure we could have never planned – nothing like anything we could have imagined…


Cudjoe Key Sunrise, originally uploaded by Key West Baseball.

The Florida Keys

April 7, 2008

If you can’t live in the Florida Keys, the next best thing is to visit.

If you can’t visit the Keys, the next best thing is to watch it on YouTube.

Here are a few I enjoyed:

The Florida Keys – Diving the Reef

Florida Keys Scuba Diving

Florida Keys Diving Picture Montage (with music)

Florida Keys & Key West: Big Pine Key & The Lower Keys

Florida Keys a journey of Dreams

Find more here.

Florida Keys, Old Railroad Bridge

April 4, 2008

The drive from Key West to the Miami airport is about 3 1/2 hours if you obey the speed limit.  If you drive recklessly, as fast as you can, you’ll get there, on average, about 20 minutes faster.  Really, they’ve done studies: you can risk your life and everyone around you, and arrive about 20 minutes earlier.  It’s hardly worth it. In fact I tell people to slow down and leave some extra time.  You’ll want to stop and take some photos, and that will add a little time to your trip.

Every turn along the Overseas Highway (aka Route 1) is a scenic picture spot. But if you stop at all of them, you’ll never get to your destination.  So that’s the other risk.

I took this picture near Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.  I like it, because it shows the Keys today, the same as it might have been in the 1920’s.  This was the Florida Keys that Hemingway and later President Truman enjoyed, and it’s quickly disappearing.

Now I’ll confess, I took this photo while driving by last weekend at 50 mph!    I didn’t heed my own advice and stop and enjoy the view.  And I know if you make it a habit of snapping photos while driving, you probably won’t make it to your destination either!

So next time I’ll pull over to take the shot.  Maybe I’ll even eat lunch there.  Heck I carry a fishing pole in the trunk – I might as well get it out!

Now where was it I was trying to go?  That’s a problem in the Keys.  It’s easy to forget where you were going…

More at: http://123FloridaKeys.com

Florida Keys, Old Railroad Bridge, originally uploaded by Key West Baseball.

"Are you near the beach?"

April 2, 2008


When someone asks me “Are you near the beach?” I always respond “Is this your first time visiting the Keys?”  Usually people are taken back by my observation.  Stunned silence follows.  Then they sometimes try to cover with “No, we’ve been to Key West a couple times.”  But a little exploring reveals it was just a short stopover on a cruise ship.  And no, they haven’t really seen the Keys.

It’s easy to see, because most people who haven’t explored the Keys, will freely substitute “beach” and “ocean”, assuming one implies the other.  But in the Keys, we have lots of ocean – not as much beach. 
Oh sure, there are a few natural sandy beaches: Bahia Honda Key and Marvin Key are gorgeous examples.  But most – including all the Key West beaches – are man-made with sand shipped in from the Bahamas.  Where the islands are left in their natural state, the mangroves protect the shoreline as well as the abundant wild-life and sea life that gives birth around it.
The shorelines of the 600 or so islands that make up the Keys is really more beautiful and diverse than any beach in the world!  But it’s not a beach.


Key Largo- Sunset, originally uploaded by dbullens.


What You Don’t See in the Keys!

March 31, 2008

When I have to come back to New York City from the Keys, it seems so foreign.

You wouldn’t know that I lived the better part of a decade wading through these man-made canyons. We lived on the 30th floor, the top floor, of a “small” apartment building in the city – in the heart of the upper west side.  It was noisy and congested.  And the buildings were, well… tall!

We spent the weekends in the burbs or the mountains or the shore.


The weekends just weren’t long enough.  That’s one of the reasons we moved to the Keys.


Wall Street, photo by Michael Aston.