Worn down by the daily grind, Martin Perry slow-travels the road from Miami to the Florida Keys and Key West, where the rich mosaic of life in the Sunshine State brings him physical and mental repose.
It has been a tsunami of a month for personal reasons, and having to navigate the (thankfully now yesteryear) complexities of pandemic-time travel has done my blood pressure no good. But, as I drive out from Miami International Airport onto the Overseas Highway, the land on either side falls away to reveal a wide vista of calm, flat and very blue ocean. It’s a surreal and liberating feeling, travelling over land and sea at the same time. I sense the serenity gradually slowing my pulse.
Florida is one of the USA’s most ecologically diverse areas. Its open, water-world-like landscapes and sub-tropical climate create the ideal conditions for a plethora of life forms seeking a place of safety where they can thrive. That includes humans, which is why many of the country’s seniors make the Sunshine State their home. Much of it lies perilously just above sea level, and if it weren’t for this characteristic flatness, it could be mistaken for South East Asia. Curiously, there are many of the same species of marine life here as there are 10,000 miles/16,000km east – like the two are climatic and topographical doppelgängers.
The further south I travel, the more land and water intertwine. The warm, clear waters of the Florida Keys are home to large numbers of dolphins, manatees, turtles and all manner of birdlife, such as the characterful pelicans who congregate around the many jetties. Over the coming days, as I slow-travel down towards Key West, my final destination, I spend as much time on the water as I do on land, kayaking, sunset-sailing and eco-touring. At one point I even end up a hundred feet in the air, floating behind a powerboat. Here, one of the many things taken seriously is having fun.
As with many slower-paced, edge-of-the-world places, there’s a strange sense of otherness about Key West. For me, it’s transitory, but the place also attracts those who never want to move on. It’s a geographic and metaphorical full-stop at the end of a country. It’s both more homogenised and diverse than it has the capacity to understand. The inclusive, community-centric cultural identities of its residents – and their care for the delicate ecosystem they live in – are heartwarming. But these are at odds with the overt capitalism and mono-cultural mass tourism – things I didn’t really experience when I first visited 10 years ago. Yet, I remain sure about one thing: the Florida Keys and Key West are a magical place to recharge, de-stress and kick back in the sun.