By DAISANN McLANE
New York Times
Over a plate of conch fritters on the deck at Alabama Jack's just north of Key Largo, I decided to test Laura's theory. I sidled up to the bar and set my iced tea down next to a line of empty longneck Budweisers. The iced tea, alas, was the best I could do. I still had about 75 miles of slow, two-lane driving before reaching my destination, Big Pine Key.
It took about 10 seconds for the bartender to say a hearty hello, then another 15 for the Bud drinker, a sunburned fellow in a tropical shirt, shorts and Tevas, to introduce himself. In a minute or so, we were discussing his plans to open an authentic bagel bakery south of Key Largo.
"Tourists come down here from the north, and they want bagels, real New York-style bagels, for breakfast and they can't get them, so you can see the potential here," he said.
A curious New Yorker could not resist asking him where he had learned so much about bagel baking.
"I ran a bagel operation up north," he said. "In Boulder, Colo."
It took a while to get back on the road because of the corollary to Laura's theory -- you know you're in the Keys when it takes twice as long as usual to say goodbye in any bar. Driving again, through walls of thick mangrove that suddenly parted to reveal flat roadside clusters of motels, shopping malls, and souvenir and bait shops, I counted the mile markers backward (Key West is mile zero), and thought about the Keys' legendary anything-goes bonhomie. I hadn't expected to find much of it as I planned to spend four days there in early February.
Jimmy Buffett has practically made a cliche of the laid-back, end-of-the-road lifestyle, and whatever aspects of Keys culture he might have missed have been scooped up for atmosphere by novelists like Elmore Leonard.
Thanks to the exposure, tourism (and prices) in the Keys had skyrocketed since my last visit in 1979. I worried that the Keys might have turned into a parody of itself, a theme park called Margaritaville. So I designed my trip to cut costs and avoid crowds. Because February is high season, I stayed in the Lower Keys, rather than in Key West. They stretch southward from the spectacular Seven-Mile Bridge and are within 40 minutes' drive of the city, close enough to visit for a day's sightseeing.
I found other reasons to like the Lower Keys as I investigated further. They are a trove of nature preserves, on land and sea. I set my sights on Big Pine Key, where little Key deer, an endangered species, were said to roam freely. From Big Pine I could kayak in the protected waters of adjacent Coupon Bight, which was filled with mangrove clusters that sheltered innumerable species of birds. The key was about a half-hour boat ride from great snorkeling in the Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary.
Lodging options in and around Big Pine were somewhat thin on the ground -- a couple of marina complexes with motel rooms for boaters, one highway motel, and three interesting looking guest houses. With three weeks' notice, all three were booked so tightly that I couldn't book four consecutive nights in any of them. Since they all appeared to be along the same quarter-mile stretch of road, I decided to cobble together a night's stay at different ones.
Even then, I couldn't do better than this: two nights at the Barnacle Bed and Breakfast ($115 a night), and one night at the Deer Run Bed-and-Breakfast ($95). There was nothing open on the fourth night, a Friday, so I took a chance that I would find something else while I was down there.
The drive down from Miami to the Lower Keys takes longer than the mile markers suggest, because of the two-lane driving. I pulled off to a side road at Mile 33, reaching the Barnacle about two hours later than planned, at around 4:30 p.m. Ready to stagger through check-in formalities and have a nap, I was jolted awake by the sight of three little brown dog-size animals in the driveway: Key deer.
I parked carefully and gently opened the car door so as not to startle them. They didn't seem to mind; in fact they moved closer. I stood there for a while gazing at the impossibly cute deer that were almost close enough to touch, thinking they must be pets of the owners. Then, suddenly, they dashed away toward the beach, behind the two-story wooden guest house.
The deer weren't pets, I found out from the innkeeper, who said that Key deer roam freely on Big Pine, and often stop by the guest house in the early morning and around sunset. Thrilled and surprised to be greeted by wildlife, I wouldn't have been upset if my room had been small or dark. But it was spacious, and decorated like a sleek studio apartment, "Miami Vice" vintage, with a leather couch, a coffee table, a queen bed draped with a flashy tropical print, and a red and blue stained glass window. The room, along with two others in the guest house, opened to a pleasant raised wood deck. The fourth room, downstairs, opened to the small beach covered with a gravelly white sand that turned into shallows of limestone rock. It was too shallow for swimming, but a paradise for watching pelicans and egrets.
Bikes for guests' use were parked downstairs; I took one and found the Deer Run Bed-and-Breakfast about 500 feet farther on. Beyond it, a few isolated houses broke the stillness of mangrove clusters, whooping birds and chirping insects. The road, and Big Pine Key, ended about 300 feet later. It was there, silhouetted by the sunset, that I spotted eight Key deer, including two bucks, feeding in a clump of mangrove. Florida Keys bars and bonhomie suddenly seemed much less interesting than the natural world literally at my doorstep.
The next day I took a kayak excursion led by a local naturalist, Emily Graves. It was expensive for my budget ($49), and the Barnacle had kayaks for guests' use. But I thought that I would have a more vivid encounter exploring the mangroves of Coupon Bight with someone who knew it well. Graves, a tall, rangy woman who showed up in a khaki cap with a foreign-legion neck flap, exceeded my expectations. She is a commercial crayfish diver in the off-season, a marine biologist and an avid bird-watcher, and has a keen eye for wildlife.
Minutes after our group of three kayaks pulled out into the shallow bight, Graves was pointing out the telltale signs of stingrays, scuttling and stirring the sand below the crystal-clear water. A brownish-black shadow slithered along the port side of the kayak. "It's a nurse shark," she said. "Don't worry, it won't hurt you," she added quickly, but I was still glad I'd resisted the temptation to trail my fingertips in the cool, six-inch-deep water.
The climax of the excursion, which lasted about three hours, was our slow approach to a mangrove cluster that sheltered dozens of cormorants and some reddish egrets. We approached the mangroves carefully, so silently that the cormorants, gleaming blue-black in the sun, allowed us to get almost close enough to touch. A reddish egret remained motionless for long suspense-filled moments, fluffing and unfluffing its elegant crown feathers. Then, all at once, the cormorants got wise to our little caravan and took off with a commotion of hooting and flapping.
The next day I had a less satisfying run-in with wild things at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, which I visited as part of an snorkel excursion with about 18 other people on a dive boat run by a charter company called Strike Zone. The trip to the protected marine reef from Big Pine took about 30 minutes, time enough for me to notice that our boat was riding parallel to a parade of shiny blobs resembling plastic bags: jellyfish.
We anchored. I put on a wet suit and snorkel and jumped into the water. It was cold -- about 68 degrees. And, when I'd gotten my bearings and cleared my mask, I saw I was surrounded by about 20 barracuda.
Immediately I surfaced, and shouted something up to the naturalist on the boat.
"It's barracuda mating season," he said. "They won't hurt you."
Not entirely confident of his assessment -- and with teeth chattering from the cold -- I returned to the boat, where moments later, another snorkeler also returned, lashed and stung by jellyfish tentacles.
It turned out to be a good day to move over to Deer Run. My room there was smaller than at the Barnacle, and had neither couch nor coffee table; just a bed, night table, dresser and bath with stall shower -- standard motel accouterments. But there was a Jacuzzi out in back on the shallow beach. There, at sunset, I poured a glass of white wine, jumped in and settled back to watch a parade of Key deer -- three bucks, a couple of yearlings and eight does. As I toweled dry, one brave doe came up and licked my hand -- a close encounter much more pleasant than the one with flirting barracuda.
My increasing affection for the Key deer put a major crimp in my night life. Although the animals seemed ubiquitous around the guest houses, they are still endangered; local authorities estimate there are only about 800 altogether. A nighttime speed limit of 35 miles an hour is in effect along the stretch of U.S. 1 that goes through Big Pine, and like most deer-infatuated tourists, I drove even more slowly, aghast at the idea of colliding with Bambi. Since it took longer to get around, I stuck to close-by eateries on the island.
An excellent health food store, the Good Food Conspiracy, had inexpensive, delicious vegetarian pita sandwiches. At dinner, I ventured only about 12 miles to Sugarloaf Key, to the classic Florida seafood joint Mangrove Mama's, where a plate of mahi-mahi washed down with a glass of iced tea was around $18.
Key West was still on my mind, but the more attached I grew to Big Pine the less I wanted to drive down there. Finally, on my last Keys day, I did visit for about three hours. But after three days among the animals, Key West felt too much like the big city. I wandered through Ernest Hemingway's splendid green-shuttered tropical house (now a museum), where I played in the garden with the famous six-toed cats (descendants, it is said, of Hemingway's menagerie), and I ate a quick sandwich and a too-sweet slice of Key Lime pie in The Deli diner, and drove back north.
It was a relief to get back to Big Pine, even though the only room I could find on a Friday night was in the Big Pine Motel, a classic two-story highway stop with bright yellow doors and a front-and-center view of U.S. 1. High season plus weekend demand had pushed its regular price of $65 up to $89 -- too much for the bare, chain-style boxes with double beds, but since the alternative was a long drive to Miami, I took it.
No Key deer roamed the Big Pine's asphalt parking lot, but it did have one big thing going for it. Directly across the two-lane highway stood KD's Seafood and Bar. Emily Graves, the naturalist, had recommended KD's as the best place to eat and drink in town, and I trusted her judgment in night life as in wildlife. Best of all, I could walk there and have a drink without worrying about colliding with deer (at least in a car).
But how would KD's do on the Keys Bar Conviviality Test? I walked in, sat down and waited. Soon, the bartender had introduced herself, given me her thoughts on the night's menu (she steered me well, to the fish chowder), and concocted a rum punch according to my instructions. In the next 15 minutes, the guy at the next stool with the gray beard and long hair had recounted the 30-year history of KD's, complete with name changes and literary references (it had appeared in a Thomas McGuane novel, he said). He then began to chronicle the ups and downs of his three marriages. ("The last was the best. It always is.")
KD's, and Big Pine Key, had passed, with distinction.
The bottom line: small inns, small deer
I spent about $173 a day on food, lodging, gas and guided trips during four days and nights on Big Pine Key in February, which is high season. Car rental was extra.
The four-room Barnacle Bed-and-Breakfast, 1557 Long Beach Drive, Big Pine Key, (800) 465-9100, fax (305) 872-3863, www.thebarnacle.net, is a modern wooden house. My spacious room ($115) had a private bath with shower, but no view. Breakfast (eggs benedict, sausage or ham, muffins) is served communally on a deck overlooking the ocean.
I wasn't able to see any of the three rooms at Casa Grande Bed-and-Breakfast, 1619 Long Beach Drive, telephone and fax (305) 872-2878, on the Web at www.floridakeys.net/casagrande. Winter rates: $119.
My ground-floor room at the Deer Run Bed-and-Breakfast, 1985 Long Beach Drive, (305) 872-2015, was the cheapest of the four in the house. It had a low ceiling and was slightly damp, but I liked the place better because of its atmosphere. The owner keeps a menagerie of parrots and toucans. A family of about 10 deer is around the property all day. Breakfast (eggs or quiche, bread, sausage, juice, coffee) is included in the rate of $95. No credit cards.
At the Big Pine Motel, Mile 30.5, (305) 872-9090, fax (305) 872-2816, www.bigpinekeymotel.com, my basic room had two double beds, and a bathroom with shower and tub. The rate on a Friday in high season is $89, which drops by $10 on weeknights.
I liked the look of Parmer's Resort, 565 Barry Ave., (305) 872-2157, fax (305) 872-2014, www.parmersplace.com, a large complex of motel rooms, cabins, and a pool facing a canal on neighboring Little Torch Key. Prices ($65 to $175 double, with Continental breakfast) are similar to the Big Pine, but it's a much better deal; the 40 rooms were full during my visit.
Alabama Jack's, 58000 Card Sound Rd., Key Largo, (305) 248-8741, is a classic open-air Florida fish joint and bar. Although I wasn't knocked out by the conch fritters, which arrived in an amorphous single piece, the atmosphere was great -- the deck looks out onto a mangrove channel, and the bar attracts characters out of a Carl Hiassen novel. Lunch of chowder, iced tea and fritters was about $12.
In Big Pine Key, I had good lunches of pita bread stuffed with sprouts, tofu, avocado and the like, and fresh vegetable shakes at the Good Food Conspiracy, at Mile 34.5 on U.S. 1; (305) 872-3945. Lunch and juice costs around $10.
On Sugarloaf Key, about 20 minutes from Big Pine, Mangrove Mama's, Mile 20, (305) 745-3030, is a rustic, timeless, family-style seafood restaurant. Entrees are $16 to $18; it gets crowded after 6 p.m.
KD's Big Pine Steak and Seafood House, Mile 30.5, (305) 872-2314, is ground zero for nighttime action in Big Pine. The restaurant serves decent renditions of the basic Keys fare: grilled or fried fish with two side dishes. My snapper dinner, with two cocktails, was around $23.
The Deli, 531 Truman Ave., Key West, (305) 294-1464; a tuna sandwich and Key lime pie cost $10.
My kayak trip into Coupon Bight ($49) was arranged by Big Pine Kayak Adventures and Reflections Charters, (305) 872-2896.
A half-day snorkel trip with Strike Zone Charters, (305) 872-9863, was $34.40 with wet-suit and fin rental.
The Hemingway Home and Museum, 907 Whitehead St., Key West, (305) 294-1136, is open daily 9 to 5; www.hemingwayhome.com. Admission: $9.
My intermediate-size Toyota, from Avis in Miami Beach was $50 a day, with a 10 percent AAA discount.
The Lower Keys Visitors Center, (800) 872-3722, and Chamber of Commerce have heaps of information at their center on Big Pine Key, Mile 31.