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Key West: Parasailing, Speeding and Sex

Updated on May 11, 2015

I was tired of winter blahs and cold last January and decided to satisfy my curiosity about a place that had always tempted me when I looked at it on a map: Key West, the southernmost point in the continental USA.

The popular assumption among outsiders is that Key West is somewhere near Miami. This is about as accurate as saying that Baltimore is somewhere near New York or Brussels is somewhere near Paris. As a matter of fact, Key West is closer to Havana, Cuba (106 nautical miles) than it is to Miami (112 n.m.). And the drive from Miami to Key West, a tedious two-lane ordeal along the ancient U.S. 1, is likely to seem as slow as a camel-drawn caravan from Khartoum to Timbuktu.

In my case, the struggle was even more epic because all flights to south Florida that weekend were sold out. The closest I could get to Key West was Melbourne, Florida, seven hours away, from which I rented a car and burned asphalt down I-95. Most motorists along I-95 seem to think the “95” refers not to the highway number, but to the recommended speed of travel. I eagerly embraced the local practice, joining the 95-ers with sinful glee. Unlike the northern part of Florida, where I’m told the rabid highway patrol actually monitors speeders from airplanes, in this section the public is given free rein to travel at NASCAR-like velocity.

For lunch I stopped in Miami’s Little Havana, which I had always pictured as a ghetto, but which has now been converted to a tourist district in sections. Sea breezes ruffled royal palms, fat men walked in sandals, and photos of anorexic models in spaghetti-strap bikinis flashed from overhead billboards. My detour to Little Havana set me back at least an hour. The drop-dead traffic jams of Hialeah and Coral Gables took two more hours.

Miami's Little Havana, not the ghetto I had imagined, had palm trees, bistros, and lovely semi-naked models on billboards.
Miami's Little Havana, not the ghetto I had imagined, had palm trees, bistros, and lovely semi-naked models on billboards.

Key Largo is the first point along the route at which the open sea becomes visible. From the elevated bridge approaching it, one can see the aquamarine heaven of the tropical waters, the empire of mangroves, sand and yachts. However, the drive becomes quite tedious for most of the rest of the way to Marathon as it passes by continuous RV parks, gas stations and motels. Despite being no more than a block or two from the sea in either direction, the route offers surprisingly few ocean vistas and at times seems almost landlocked.

By dark I finally achieved the object of my journey: the Timbuktu of the Keys, the End of Ends, the South of Souths. Though it was January, the abyss of winter in northern locales, the balmy tropical night in Key West was perfect for the most common local apparel, T-shirt and flipflops. I struggled mightily to find a parking place, finally resorting to a vacant church lot about 10 blocks from downtown. I wandered through the historic district by the waterfront. I supped at an outdoor café by a hot dog stand and watched the palm trees in the dark.

In Key West, even hot dog stands seem glamorous.
In Key West, even hot dog stands seem glamorous.

In the morning, sunshine flooded the place and I was able to appreciate the many historical structures of the old town, which is surprisingly well preserved. What sets it apart from other resort towns in Florida is the abundance of 19th century architecture. The Audubon House, situated on Whitehead Street about two blocks from the harbor, is especially enchanting with its tropical gardens and winding paths. John James Audubon, the famed bird-watcher, lived here in 1832 when he came to study the wildlife of the nearby Keys and Dry Tortugas islands.

The Audubon House has a 200-plus year history of accommodating needy travelers.
The Audubon House has a 200-plus year history of accommodating needy travelers.

The nearby Banyan Resort offers the same stylish indolence, the back-porch-swing mint-julep luxury of past days.

A step back in time, the Banyan Resort is a time capsule of the Old South of Florida's early development.
A step back in time, the Banyan Resort is a time capsule of the Old South of Florida's early development.

Key West has a colorful and interesting history. During the U.S. Civil War, the city, though in Confederate Florida, was controlled by the Union Army which had command of a nearby naval base. The predominantly Southern-sympathizing local population resented this and regarded the episode as a hostile occupation. By 1890 Key West was the best known, richest and most populous city in Florida, though it was inaccessible by land until 1912, when Henry Flagler opened the Florida East Coast Railroad. Remnants of this now-abandoned rail line exist along U.S. 1 through the Keys. Some sections of the rail line are now used as fishing piers. Many details of this period may be found in the Key West Art and History Museum along the waterfront.

The Key West Art and History Museum lies a few steps from the waterfront. Note the massive cruise ship docked at left.
The Key West Art and History Museum lies a few steps from the waterfront. Note the massive cruise ship docked at left.

Resort cruise ships are a mainstay in Key West, particularly in winter when vessels from around the world deposit cold-weary tourists for the sun and fun of shore landings here. The biggest vessel I’ve ever seen in my life was docked in the harbor that day—a floating city of luxury and ease.

The great vessel, with its origins in Shanghai, had  deposited a boatload of visitors on Key West's shores the night before.
The great vessel, with its origins in Shanghai, had deposited a boatload of visitors on Key West's shores the night before.

Before the afternoon waned I experienced the sport of parasailing, the closest experience a human being can have to being a bird. A specially-equipped boat with about 10 of us aboard left the dock and sped into the open water a few minutes offshore. While the captain studied the wind and elements, an assistant harnessed us two at a time to the end of a long rope connected to a winch. The boat gathered speed and the rope was let out. We hovered over the water, our legs dangling, while the boat drew further away from us.

Stage 1: We get our feet wet.
Stage 1: We get our feet wet.

And now the captain opened his throttle, the rope was let out still further, and we began to soar higher above the port and the aquamarine paradise of water.

Stage 2: The wind gathers under our chute.
Stage 2: The wind gathers under our chute.

When the rope reached its limit we were about 300 feet above the water, supported under the parachute only by rope and harness. As high as a 30 story building above the water, and yet there was no fear, only freedom. One is not conscious at all of height, any more than a bird might be. The element of the air seems as natural there as the ground seems when we walk upon it with our feet.

Stage 3: We soar higher than a kite.
Stage 3: We soar higher than a kite.

All good things must end and after about 10 minutes the rope was drawn in and we were lowered and brought back safely on deck. It was time for the next pair to go. We were the guinea pigs, the first pair to fly on that expedition. Pigs have never risen to higher glory!

Stage 4: The final tease. The skipper gives you one last near-dunking, then accelerates to get you up again and pulls in the winch.
Stage 4: The final tease. The skipper gives you one last near-dunking, then accelerates to get you up again and pulls in the winch.

After the excitement and exhilaration of the parasailing I found the perfect restaurant for a tourist who had just flown high. It was called “Better Than Sex”. It was said to be a “dessert restaurant.”

Answering if the restaurant lives up to its title might put one in an awkward position. The safest answer would be: "Yes, with anyone except you."
Answering if the restaurant lives up to its title might put one in an awkward position. The safest answer would be: "Yes, with anyone except you."

I was tempted to go into the place and probably would have if it had been called “Better Than Parasailing”. That would have been much more impressive to me at that point. It was getting late then anyway and I’d had enough excitement for one day.

© 2015 James Crawford

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