Our Winter Home in the Florida Keys

Our Winter Home in the Florida Keys

Morning arrived on the edge of the Everglades, and along with it our excitement to embark on the last leg of our journey for 2017. We had just over 200 miles of travel planned for the day, following US 41 on a straight stretch through the Everglades before heading south on 997 to Homestead, and finally spilling onto US 1 which would lead us to the Keys. Neither Ashley nor I would likely have visited the stretch of islands off the southern tip of the Florida mainland were it not for her father, who repeatedly invited us to visit his boating and fishing getaway in the past. Our previous three visits (before the RV) were all during July, one of the hottest and most humid months in the Keys, so we were anxious to experience the winter months in this tropical paradise.

Heading through the Keys on US 1

As most everyone knows, Hurricane Irma significantly damaged many areas in the Keys when the storm roared through on September 10, 2017 as it continued along its path of destruction through the North Atlantic tropical region. While recovery efforts were quickly initiated after the storm and repairs continue, the aftermath is still easy to see along US 1 as debris lines sides of the highway, waiting for removal crews to load the storm-damaged material onto trucks to cart back to the mainland. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, with mobile homes and RVs the most prone to damage as skeletons of both still lie scattered or in piles along the highway.

Irma debris lining both sides of US 1
One of many mounds of storm debris along the highway

The Miami Herald reported that tens of thousands of homes in the Keys were destroyed during Irma, mostly in the Middle and Lower Keys regions, leading to thousands of displaced residents in need of shelter. Because land area is limited and real estate prices continue to rise, it’s not uncommon to find communities composed of mobile homes and RV parks filled with year-round residents. Current building codes no longer allow the placement of trailer-type dwellings, as new construction must adhere to the hurricane-resistant construction guidelines implemented in 2002 including stronger roof fasteners to sustain high winds, impact-resistant windows, and homes built on concrete stilts in certain areas to avoid storm surge flood waters.

FEMA housing currently exists in the form of hotel rooms, 173 travel trailers, and FEMA-paid apartments, as reported recently in The Citizen, Key West’s only daily newspaper. With tourist season approaching, would-be visitors are finding spaces limited as displaced residents find shelter in hotels while working on a long-term housing plan. FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program is set to expire January 6, with no extension currently planned but officials wouldn’t be surprised if the program isn’t extended for some families due to the current housing situation in the Keys.

The high cost of rebuilding combined with the complete destruction in certain areas has lead to long-time residents abandoning the Keys or fighting to remain and recreate their version of paradise. Some RV and trailer parks are now merely memories, with residents having no other option but to leave and find homes elsewhere (check out this USA Today article for more information, if you’re interested).

Considering recent events, I write this with absolute certainty that we are incredibly fortunate to not only visit but to become involved in the community around the Geiger Key area. We might occasionally play the part of tourists, trying a new restaurant, walking aimlessly in downtown Key West, and snapping photos of our surroundings, but we now have the chance to become actively engaged in a physical community, even if it is only temporarily. More to come on that in our next post – for this installment, we’ve only just arrived.

Amidst the rebuilding efforts, visitors and locals alike continue to find pockets where life goes on as usual and the destruction of the hurricane is already a thing of the past. Tourism is far and away the largest industry throughout the Keys, so getting visitors here to spend money is the top priority. While people might think of only Key West when we mention the Florida Keys, the island chain is actually made up of hundreds of smaller land masses covering roughly 100 linear land miles from Key Largo (probably made more famous by the Beach Boys in the chorus of their 1989 pop song) to Key West, with another 70 miles by sea to the uninhabited Dry Tortugas.

While we’ve spent most of our time on Geiger Key (ten miles east of Key West) and Key West proper, we’ve visited a few other islands on past trips and during our recent journey. Key Largo is arguably the most touristy island, at least a close second to Key West, because it’s the closest to the Florida mainland and fastest to reach by car. We’re certainly not experts on the area, but I’ve heard from multiple people that the real feel of the Keys doesn’t start until you reach Tavernier or Islamorada, with more “authentic” Keys restaurants, bars, Mom and Pop stores, and an increasingly laid-back attitude.

As we drove the RV across US 1, we decided to stop just before the Seven Mile Bridge outside of Marathon. We pulled into the Sunset Grille based on a recommendation and because we didn’t think we’d have any issues getting in and out with the RV (and we didn’t). As you’d find with many Keys restaurants, Sunset Grille offers plenty of open air seating overlooking the water and a traditional thatched roof tiki hut. We splurged on a purchased meal and a couple of drinks as we stretched our legs (yes, we sometimes stand at a bar or tall table to eat, especially after too much sitting elsewhere) and began to enjoy our island surroundings. If you’re looking for a place to pull over and grab a bite as you drive the Overseas Highway, check out Sunset Grille for a good mix of tourists and locals alike, not to mention a great view of the ocean.

Tiki hut and pool at Sunset Grille overlooking Seven Mile Bridge

If you’re wondering how the Seven Mile Bridge earned its name, well, I guess I should point out that the bridge is nearly seven miles long. Not a terribly original name, but accurately descriptive nonetheless. The original bridge, built between 1909 and 1912 under the direction of Henry Flagler, was part of the Overseas Railroad. After sustaining damage during the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the railway was sold to the US government and refurbished for automobile use. Most of the original bridge still exists, but has been closed to automobile traffic since 2008. The current Seven Mile Bridge was built between 1978 to 1982 and now provides the only vehicular access to and from the Lower Keys.

The original bridge is also home to Fred the Tree, an Australian pine growing from the roadbed despite the apparent lack of native soil. According to a Keys Voices article, Fred has always been a symbol of perseverance to the Keys community, becoming even more prominent after surviving Irma. The tree lives on a section of the Old Seven Mile Bridge closed even to pedestrian traffic, which means humans can only reach the bridge by air (as in dropping from the sky in a parachute) or by sea and climbing the 100-year old pylon from a boat 20 feet below the road. Which makes the fact that Fred is decorated for Christmas every year even more remarkable. We happened to catch a photo of what appeared to be this very event as we drove past.

Fred with visitors and Christmas decorations

After a day of driving and about six months of near-constant but slow travel, we arrived in our new seasonal home and eased Cecil into his parking spot for the next couple of months. Eager to get out and jump into the neighborhood, we hopped on our bikes after securing the RV and headed to the nearby Geiger Key Marina and Fish Camp (also home to an RV park, but priced way out of our budget at over $100 a night).

Cecil tucked away in the islands for the winter

The restaurant and bar areas at the Marina are completely open-air, with a view of the mangroves close by and the open ocean in the distance. While they claim to be a true locals’ hangout on the “backside of paradise”, prices still reflect a tourist destination, but such is life throughout most areas in the Keys. If you’re looking for a place to park your RV and price isn’t really a concern, the Geiger Key RV Park is picturesque, conveniently located, and lively at times. The food from the restaurant is great and they’ll cook your catch for you, if you’re too tired from your day of fishing to do it yourself. They also offer live music many nights throughout the week, including an open mic night on Wednesdays (note this bit of foreshadowing for our next installment).

Sunset from the Geiger Marina

We spent our first week settling in, catching up on some chores, and biking back and forth to Key West for groceries and fun outings. Speaking of biking, most of US 1 in the Lower Keys features dedicated bike lanes on either side of the road, as well as a completely separate bike trail (the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail) making cycling very easy and convenient. As you head into the Middle Keys, storm debris obstructs large sections of the trail along the road but many areas have been cleared and are open for riding.

Statue of Henry Flagler in Key West, visionary credited with spurring development in the Florida Keys
Key West Municipal Building
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Key West

On one of our trips to Key West we revisited some favorite haunts like The Porch, which offers the best selection of craft beer on the island, as well as a couple of new places like the Waterfront Brewery which offers fantastic viewing but only mediocre beer. We got in a bit of sightseeing as we walked around downtown and Old Town before hopping on our bikes to pedal the ten miles back to Geiger Key (ok, we may have stopped at Roostica on Stock Island for a wood-fired pizza along the way).

Enjoying a tasty brew from inside The Porch
Colorful exterior of the Waterfront Brewery

Ashley’s dad carved out some time from his northern home to join us after our first week flew by and the holiday season quickly approached. An avid fisherman, he rekindled my latent desire to attempt to catch some fish and I brought my rod out of stasis from the RV storage bay. We spent some time on the seawall behind his house enticing the stubborn mangrove snappers onto our hooks with mild success, but it was a good refresher for me, as well as solid instruction on reel and rod maintenance in the harsh saltwater environment.

Hoping to catch a few fish from the canal
Ashley enjoying the sun as we drive

We needed to take care of a few other pressing chores on other islands, so one sunny day the three of us hopped into his car and headed northeast to Marathon. After finishing the important tasks, we made a couple of fun stops along the way back, including the hidden away No Name Pub, famous for the dollar bills completely covering the walls and ceiling. Interesting and quirky place, worth a stop if you feel like taking a drive and have some time to kill. Easier to find than the No Name Pub, the Sugarloaf Lodge at Mile Marker 17 has a small tiki bar in the back offering yet another fantastic waterfront view, as well as docks to spot the fish swimming nearby. Great place to relax with a drink and enjoy the breeze from Sugarloaf Sound.

Surrounded by dollar bills at the No Name Pub
Checking out the fish behind the tiki bar at Sugarloaf Lodge

Our winter adventures in the Keys were just getting started, with more fishing, bike riding, and socializing soon to come. But that’s a story for next time. We hope everyone who celebrated had a merry Christmas and best wishes as we enter a new year!

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