Interval World - June 2003
Sentenced to Paradise
Bands of cirrus clouds stretched across the azure like the downy wings of Pegasus. Terns nested. Gentle blue swells kissed the gossamer sands of Garden Key. The moat, however – to the perpetual discontent of the island’s residents – stank to high heaven. Not surprising, since it served as the septic system for the scores of soldiers, construction workers and prisoners (mostly Union Army deserters put to use instead of death) who lived, worked and died at Fort Jefferson between 1846 and 1874.
In those days, despite the sublime and secluded setting, life here was anything but paradise. And though a proud structure – the bastion was the engineering marvel of its day, primed to protect the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Mexico – sweltering wool uniforms, rampant yellow fever outbreaks and an acute rodent infestation problem didn’t make things any sweeter.
Of course, that was then. These days, the fort – and the colorful stories that go along with it – is the captivating main attraction at Dry Tortugas National Park, alongside the bustling bird colonies and some of the finest snorkeling reefs in the United States. There are no dress codes, no disease and no vermin. And the air, not unlike the sparkling moat where sea life now thrives, is a salty-pure pleasure to the senses.
Vacationers make their way to the Key West Seaport in the early morning to board the sleek, stable and state-of-the-art Yankee Freedom II for the trip to the Dry Tortugas. This small collection of islands was named “Las Tortugas” in 1513 by explorer Ponce de Leon for the ample supply of sea turtles – and therefore turtle meat, greatly prized by the malnourished mariners – found in the surrounding water (none of which is potable, hence the preceding “dry,” a term warning sailors in search of a well to keep looking).
Passengers, up to 250 on her busiest outings, step aboard for a continental breakfast and settle in for a journey both soothing and informative. Guides are quick to point out features in the rapidly shrinking Key West landscape as the 100-foot catamaran powers away at an average of 30 miles per hour. She makes the 70-mile trip in roughly two hours, during which you’ll learn about the passing sites of interest including the Marquesa Key Atoll and the location of the famed Spanish wreck Nuestra Señora de Atocha (see “Booty Haul”).
Upon arrival, your time is your own to sun, swim, snorkel (gear is included), bird-watch or explore, but the optional 45-minute tour, narrated by one of the crew guides, offers a superb introduction to the fort. Beginning at the gate and winding up at the lighthouse – views from the top are striking – topics covered along the way include its design, construction, history, artillery, residents and other fascinating facts about life in the middle of nowhere.
Lunch also is included in the price of the outing, which will have you back in time to watch the spectacular Key West sunset from the Tower Bar at Turtle Kraal’s on the wharf. Eats consist of cold cuts, PB&J, cold sides, cookies, fruit and beverages. On the journey back, the onboard cash bar opens, serving both leaded and unleaded libations and a selection of snacks. Overall, this is a marvelous trip that offers education and history away from the bustle of Old Town and allows visitors to spend at least one day on the water – a must in the Florida Keys.
“If anyone has seen Mel Fisher,” the radio announcer said, “tell him they found the mother lode!”
It was 1985 and at last, Fisher’s optimistic precognitive motto – “Today’s the day!” – had come to pass. Nearly 1,100 silver bars and boxes of gold coins, about a thousand in each, were unearthed in the sandy beds off the Marquesa Key Atoll, all of it recovered from the legendary 1632 wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon lost in a monster storm. It was the richest cache of treasure discovered since Howard Carter opened King Tut’s tomb.
Fisher, a pioneer in the realm of scuba diving, was out buying a new pair of fins at the time, but his dream had finally materialized. The Atocha, not to mention her incalculable riches, were no longer conjecture, her location no longer hypothesis.
Two years later, the Atocha site had yielded between $200 and $400 million in treasure and archeological finds – some 127,000 silver coins, more than 900 gold bars averaging 70 pounds apiece, 700-plus emeralds, hundreds of personal items – from jewelry to silverware and much, much more.
Though Fisher passed away in 1998, his vision endures. The wreck site is still being excavated today (we saw one of the Fisher ships as we motored past on our way to Fort Jefferson) and much of the haul remains buried somewhere in the seabed, awaiting discovery.
Some $20 million worth of her treasure – and that of other Fisher finds such as the galleon Santa Margarita (also of the 1622 Spanish fleet) and the Henrietta Marie, an English slave ship that went down in 1700 – can be seen at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum on Greene Street. After a fascinating film about the man and his quest, you can peruse the diverse riches culled from these illustrious ships. Feel the awesome weight of a gold brick, fall into the bottomless green of thumb-sized emeralds and marvel at gold chains so massive they’d impress Mr. T (while gold bricks were amply taxes by the Spanish government, personal effects were not – hence the outrageously cumbersome accessories). Visitors also learn about the passengers themselves and the arduous process by which such treasure is recovered after centuries spent in the harsh, salty sea. An attraction as magnetic as the man who spawned it, don’t pass it up.
Dogs, Drinks & Debauchery
The above could describe any number of Key West watering holes, but none so justly as the Schooner Wharf Bar, princess of the pier in my estimation, and an altogether different sunset option than the moderately controlled lunacy of Mallory Square. Among our drinking buddies: Two rowdy leashless mutts with a penchant for coconut shrimp and a suspiciously mellow Jack Russell terrier in a custom leather motorcycle jacket.
My husband and I made a lot of friends on our last visit – a hard-partying couple from Cincinnati, a pair of newlyweds from Amityville, N.Y. and a St. Louis couple (He: Merrily celebrating his wife’s first pregnancy with round after round of designer shots – they were red, but that’s all I can tell you – She: sober, sweet and amused by the rum-addled stupidity successfully creeping up on the rest of us). It was a glorious time indeed.
Everything we truly love in a bar is here: marina-side setting, open-air atmosphere, cheesy nautical décor, lots of dogs, no dress code and the enthusiastic endorsement of the locals. But the Schooner Wharf goes that extra mile, offering up three daily happy hours: 8 am – noon; 5 – 7 pm and 2-4 am. Now that’s good public relations.
Whether the subject in question walks on two legs or four, the Florida Keys are renowned for their unique wildlife species. And while you may want to tour the rowdy zone of Duval Street for close encounters with the former, for the latter I recommend a scenic, 30-mile drive to Big Pine Key – home of the National Key Deer Refuge.
These pint-sized Bambis are the smallest subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer (bucks weigh an average of 80 pounds, standing between 28 and 32 inches tall at the shoulder; does are more diminutive, averaging 65 pounds) and are found nowhere else on Earth. The refuge – a sweeping tract of land encompassing stretches of tropical hardwood hammock habitat and an assortment of endangered animals and plants – was established in 1957, at which time only 27 key deer remained. Since then, numbers have swelled to about 800.
The best times for spotting them are at dawn and dusk, although we encountered on lone and delicately beautiful doe on a mid-morning trail hike. Exploring the South Florida backcountry is a decidedly unique experience; its landscape and flora differ greatly from more traditional hiking destinations and with or without a deer sighting, the sweet air and stirring silence serve as a refreshing break from the perpetual party back in Key West. Just remember, if you do encounter any deer – don’t feed them. Although they are beguiling, resist your natural impulse to befriend. Fear of humans is about the only thing that will save these precious creatures. Roughly 70 percent of key deer deaths each year occur when hapless animals wander the roadside in search of a handout.