By Liz Doup, Sun Sentinel
February 3, 2010
Lloyd only shrugs, then flashes a smile that says, "You're not quitting on me, are you?" So we hop back on our bikes and keep pedaling.
And why not? This is Key West, where downpours didn't stop pirates from pillaging or Hemingway from drinking or Buffett from strumming. And where sanity has never been in great supply anyway.
But Lloyd's got it right. There's no need to alter my mission — see Key West without a car — even though more rain will fall this day than the city typically gets in a month, soaking the Southernmost Point of the United States to saturation.
Most of Key West's "must sees" are within a few blocks or so of Party Central — Duval Street in Old Town. That includes Hemingway's Spanish Colonial-style house, home to his six-toed cats, and Mallory Square, where silliness reigns before sunset as jugglers and animal trainers work the crowd for tips.
Some tourists never stray far from Duval Street, with enough shops, restaurants and bars for a lost weekend.
If you can comfortably walk a couple of miles, you can easily cover all of Old Town by foot. If you want to go farther afield, rent a bike (about $15 for 24 hours) and see the entire 2-by-4-mile island without wearing yourself to a frazzle. Bike rental shops are almost as abundant as bars. Almost.
I arrived in Key West carless, having taken an express ferry in Fort Myers. It was comfortable and efficient, a 3 1/2 hour trip that eliminated the long, tortuous drive and potential parking hassles.
Leafing through travel brochures, I read about Lloyd Mager's bike tour — two hours and five miles long, down the back alleys and side streets you might otherwise miss.
Lloyd knows every inch of the city. Bronx-raised, he landed in Key West in 1972, staying afloat by dabbling in dozens of jobs, most of them legal. But for the past 20 years, he's paid the bills with his bike tours.
I can't miss Lloyd at the bike-rental shop where his tour starts. He's tanned, all lean muscle, his legs looking Tour de Keys ready.
I'm the only one showing up for today's ride and, on a budget and with a deadline, I tell Lloyd it's now or never. He's game, sporting rain gear, his bike packed with an assortment of fruit and a machete. Oh, and a conch shell.
Lloyd gives it a hearty ceremonial blast and we're off. But first, a fair warning: This isn't your tour if you want a neutral recitation of island facts and figures. You won't hear about the Key West of the 1820s, home to ship salvagers and Cuban cigar makers. Or how the city morphed into a hot spot for the literati, the gay crowd and cruise ship passengers, who emerge from the ships in a frightening mass, marching toward Old Town.
Take the Conch Tour Train for that.
Lloyd's tour is a meandering, botanical-filled bike ride, laced with his musings.
A little philosophy: "Life doesn't have to be a struggle. You don't need a lot of stuff when you're just living day to day." A little rage against developers: "All that commercialization, the exploitation ..."
And a little … pilfering. Mager thinks nothing of "liberating" a leaf, a flower or a piece of fruit as he whips by overhanging branches.
"My motto: You don't know what you've got till Lloyd's taken it,'' he says.
We stop under a store canopy, where Lloyd slices an avocado. He spritzes juice from a lime and we indulge. Heavenly. Then he hacks up a coconut and we drink the liquid straight — an avocado chaser.
"I just want people to have a good time and get out of the rigmarole of their lives,'' he says.
We continue to pedal, traveling under tree canopies on narrow streets with charming little homes that won't make Architectural Digest but do look as if someone lives there.
When we stop at "Nancy's Secret Garden," I meet Nancy Forrester, who bought this acre of undeveloped land in 1969 and kept it that way. Though not far from Old Town, it remains a veritable rain forest filled with palms, ferns and parrots Nancy has collected over the years.
Nancy fills us in on her David and Goliath battle to save this precious patch of land while cuddling a brilliant blue hyacinth macaw, the size of a small dog. Lloyd, who's heard all this before, grabs an allspice leaf off a tree, crushing it so I can savor the aroma.
A stop at Nancy's is de rigueur on Lloyd's tour. But there's no guarantee you'll see the same things I did.
"I like spontaneous things to happen,'' Lloyd says. "The tour changes all the time."
Alas, we're only an hour or so into our ride when something spontaneous happens: thunder.
I don't want to be outside if lightning joins this wild weather show and tell Lloyd it's time to say goodbye. I return the bike and slog a dozen blocks in ankle-deep water to my bed and breakfast. I haven't been this wet since covering that hurricane madness a few years back. But my only regret is the lightning.
To his credit, I think Lloyd would have kept pedaling. Crazy, but it's the Keys.