By Thomas Swick
City & Shore Magazine
Of the many attractions in the Keys – fishing, snorkeling, boating, chilling – the one that almost all visitors partake of is driving. (There are a few old salts who eschew cars.) The everyday world drifts away as you tool into a watery realm. Even when the ocean and the bay disappear, they’re replaced by boat lots, shell shops, fish shacks, dive bars. The Keys are that rare place whose beauty is at one with, and inseparable from, the pleasure of getting to it.
So back in April, making my first trip to the Keys since Hurricane Irma, I was concerned that the drive – and subsequently the islands – wouldn’t be as lovely as I remembered them.
Key Largo looked encouraging. The canopy of the Caribbean Club still ennobled the entrance while, on the side streets, cottages trimmed with nautical swag sunbathed in their pebble yards. Back on U.S. 1, I saw the rare nylon sign draped over the one the wind had punched out.
In Islamorada, a great egret waited hopefully outside the fish market under Lazy Days restaurant.
“He comes every day,” the woman in the open-air gift shop said. “Thinks he’s gonna get something.” The ocean, with all its bounty, sat maybe a dozen yards away.
I asked about Irma.
“The water came up to here,” the woman said, pointing high up on one of the columns. “It destroyed the fish market and the bar.” Both had been rebuilt, and now gave the impression that nothing had happened.
A little to the north, Cheeca Lodge & Spa was now clearly visible from the road.
“A lot of non-native trees went,” said Rhonda Whitfield, director of sales and marketing. “We’ve brought in more native trees to fill in.”
We were sitting in the lobby, a few weeks after the resort had reopened.
“The first week we got flowers from local businesspeople. They kept saying how happy they were that we were open. That’s how Islamorada is.”
As we talked, couples walked past in shorts and sandals. A good number of them, according to Whitfield, were longtime guests at Cheeca. They had told her that they wanted to give it their support as it got back on its feet. In the process, they were discovering it anew.
“The whole lobby is completely redone,” Whitfield said. “We brightened it up. We wanted to go back to the fishing lodge feel.” It is now – thanks in part to the greatly enlarged bar – a “communal space,” a place for people to gather and chat.
Outside, tables from the Atlantic’s Edge restaurant overlooked the rebuilt pier. On the dinner menu, among the items “From the Sea,” was an offer to prepare any fish a guest had caught – “grilled, blackened or fried” – and serve it with Yukon purée, seasonal vegetables and sweet corn.
“The fishing is amazing,” Whitfield said. “Because people haven’t been here. It’s pristine again.”
About four miles and four bridges south, on the bay side of Lower Matecumbe Key, the parking lot of Robbie’s Marina was filling up. At the outdoor Hungry Tarpon Restaurant, general manager Cailin Reckwerdt showed off the new deck.
“I never saw so much seaweed in my life,” she said, recalling her return to the marina the day after Irma. “You know how bad rotting seaweed smells?”
The hurricane brought the worst damage Robbie’s had ever seen, though it was hard to imagine it on this sunny spring day. One visible sign came in the shape of three dead trees poking out of the new deck crowded with vacationers.
“We redid a lot. We saw it as an opportunity. You just rebuild and recreate,” Reckwerdt said philosophically of life on an island at the edge of the tropics. “But we always hold on to what we were.”
Robbie’s was started by Reckwerdt’s grandfather in 1976 and it still belongs to the simple, laidback, seemingly tossed together Keys. If Cheeca is the kind of place that would appeal to Jimmy Buffett today, Robbie’s is the spot the young Buffett would have liked.
Reckwerdt led me through the old fish house, just as one of the charter boats was heading out. She picked up a plastic bucket of sardines and marched purposefully out to the dock. Feeding the tarpon is a tradition at Robbie’s.
“It took a little while after Irma for the tarpon to come back,” Reckwerdt said. “The water was murky and they like clear water.”
Lying on her stomach, she held a sardine inches above the water. Tourists gawped and pelicans pounced. “They’re part of Robbie’s,” Reckwerdt said forgivingly of the birds.
Undeterred, she got up and moved to a small pool where rubberneckers created a Rockwellian tableau. Prostrate again, she dangled another sardine and, free from interspecies competition, a tarpon leapt skyward and snatched it from her fingers.
Marathon bloomed with “Now Open” and “Now Hiring” signs. I checked into Tranquility Bay Beach House Resort, a large, beautifully landscaped, Key West-style lodging that shone pristine in the early evening light. Down around the tiki bar, guests gathered for the sunset, another conch custom – the shared, life-on-pause wonder at Earth’s unremitting way.
Up in my room, I read the papers. A story in the Florida Keys Free Press told of Islamorada’s decision to do more tourism advertising: “Vacationers need to know that Islamorada is open for business, a unanimous Village Council says.” Another story was about the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s efforts to enlist “dive boat captains and volunteers to clean up marine debris from Hurricane Irma.” A headline in the paper’s Home & Garden section read: “Garden will flourish with native plants.” The classifieds in the back of the Free Press, as well as the Keys Weekly, were ripe with businesses – hotels, restaurants, marinas, health care facilities – looking for workers. Unfortunately, there were no accompanying offers of housing.
In the morning I drove across the Seven Mile Bridge to Big Pine Key, the traditional home of the region’s workforce. Small trees, many of them leafless, leaned in unison away from the ocean. A sign appeared telling motorists to be alert for CRMA workers. (The acronym, I learned later, stood for Conch Republic Marine Army, a volunteer clean-up crew.) I made a right turn onto Cunningham Lane and, a few blocks in, entered the grounds of Grimal Grove. It looked, not surprisingly, as if a hurricane had hit it.
A man with shoulder-length brown hair emerged from a trailer. He was not the owner, he said; he was just helping the owner out. He telephoned the owner, who was living in the trailer across the way, and as we waited he opened the trunk of his car to show me the cigar box ukuleles he makes. This seemed a Keys moment on a par with, if not surpassing, tarpon feeding.
Patrick Garvey arrived shortly in long pants, T-shirt and ball cap. He was a young, thoughtful man whose subdued manner I attributed to post-Irma malaise, though the devastation around us, he assured me, was not as bad as it looked. With a quiet, awakened passion, he gave a brief history of the grove – it was founded in the ’50s by Adolf Grimal, a kind of Lower Keys David Fairchild – and told me that most of his prized fruit trees had survived: the alupag, the Lancetilla mango and the extremely rare nuaga sapote. (Google it and the first two items that appear are about Garvey and Grimal Grove.) In fact, Irma destroyed only one of the original trees.
“They’re 50, 60 years old,” he said. “Their root structures are deep enough that they were able to handle the flooding.” And because the grove slopes down, the salt water drained off relatively quickly.
But a lot of hard work lay ahead, demanding new, creative approaches. “The hurricane,” Garvey said, “really made me refocus.”
I drove down to Cudjoe Key and stopped at the Square Grouper Bar & Grill.
“This is the best place to eat in the Lower Keys,” the woman squeezed next to me at the bar announced. “Including Key West.”
Because that town had bounced back quickly, I was skipping it this trip, so I was happy to have chanced upon this place. My fish tacos arrived on a large plate logjammed with thin, perfectly crisp fries and crowned by a tiny bowl of sublime, minutely chopped coleslaw.
“I’m a fresh water conch,” the woman continued. “I’ve been here seven years. A lot of people come and can’t take it and leave after a couple years.” If you make it to seven, she said, you’re given the well-earned (at least last year) honorific.
She ran the jet ski rental just up the road. “It’s got a sign out that says ‘Free Beer.’ You get the beer,” she added, “after the rental.”
Leaving, I wished her luck with hurricanes this season.
“People here say there’s one every 10 years,” she noted confidently.
This reassured me until I got outside and remembered that few things are as unobservant of norms as weather in the 21st century.
Heading home, like everyone, I did the drive down in reverse. (Though not in the gear “reverse.”) In Islamorada I spotted some activity off to the right – a street filling with covered booths – and made a quick turn. A parking space awaited not far from The Florida Keys Memorial, commemorating the victims of the 1935 hurricane.
I made my way down Industrial Road, aka Morada Way, past food trucks and women setting up tables of jewelry. Families played cornhole in a leafy beer garden. The trees, here and deeper in, gave the street a kind of Key West lushness.
I had stumbled upon the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District as it prepared for its Third Thursday art walk. The district’s curator and master ceramicist, John Dietsch, stood in a warehouse down on the right.
“John’s brought the clay studio up to a high level,” said Anders Urbom, executive director of the district.
Riona Campbell soon joined us. An Islamorada native, she is the coordinator for the art walk and, according to her business card, “Executive Hot Mess” at the Florida Keys Brewing Company. The beer garden, she explained, is connected to the taproom; the brewing takes place in a warehouse down the street.
Artists get thirsty, perhaps especially in the Keys.
The art walk was born the same year as the district – 2011 – and it takes place every month of the year. I asked if there had been one last September.
“Yes!” said Campbell. “It was a pot luck.” The brewery donated the beer, and the money went to buy food and supplies that were delivered to people in the Lower Keys. The battered helping the pummeled.
I walked back to my car and pointed it north. Around mile marker 104, the canopy of the Caribbean Club appeared. I strolled in past the statue of Humphrey Bogart – and the black-and-white photographs of the filming of Key Largo – and out the back. Coconut palms rimmed the bay and patrons stood with drinks in hand, awaiting – as people have here for four score years – the Key orange sunset.