The perfect trip: Florida
What is it about this tiny island that draws such great talent? ‘Key West is the very end of the world,’ remarks Dave Gonzales, manager of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, the Key West home where Hemingway penned, among others, To Have and Have Not, set entirely in the area. ‘A writer performs in solitude, and Key West is definitely good for solitude,’ adds Dave.
Once you escape the garishness of Duval Street there’s a frozen-in-time quality to Old Town. Ramshackle houses stand beside grand colonial homes – a mishmash of styles drawing equally on the Caribbean and New England. Hibiscus flowers spill over rickety picket fences and jasmine perfumes the air after rainfall. The night sky blazes with stars. Life unfurls slowly. It’s hardly a stretch to imagine crafting the great American novel in such a lazy, liberating environment.
Where to eat
Blue Heaven has a Caribbean-influenced menu, but no reservations means long waits, especially for breakfast. Save room for the Key lime pie (mains from £7).
Where to stay
Key West Inns: Historic Key West Inns operates five properties in the Old Town, and Key Lime Inn is the collection’s top-end draw – an estate dating back to 1854, with guestrooms in several satellite buildings that surround an expansive pool deck. Rooms feel fresh with an uncluttered design, sunny colour palettes and up-to-date amenities (from £100).
Everglades National Park: Best for nature
Florida is incredibly flat – like a saucer jutting off the edge of the North American continent. Water creeps in vast, shallow sheets across marshy limestone. An elevation change of a few inches yields an entirely different habitat. That’s what makes the Everglades so remarkable – nine distinctly different ecosystems in an area once dismissed as swamp.
‘The story of the Everglades is a story of water,’ says national-park ranger and naturalist Sue Reece before swatting a mosquito from her face. ‘This was the first national park set aside for its biological diversity and not its geological wonders. It’s not a swamp; it’s a very slow-moving river – at least it used to be.’
Much of the flow has been diverted for agriculture and development, but there’s a 40-year restoration plan under way to undo the damage caused by canals.
Plants and animals that live nowhere else in America thrive in abundance – from strangler fig trees to the elusive Florida panther. And birds are everywhere – great herons and snowy egrets wading through the mudflats, pelicans and cormorants in treetops, and large flocks of ibis taking wing in billowing blankets of white.
No species sparks as much fascination as the alligator, the park’s top predator. They’re easy to spot, too. ‘We’ve had ’em laying out under the picnic tables,’ says Sue. These beasts play a key role in the park’s ecology by burrowing ‘alligator holes’, which fill with deep water that benefits other species in the dry season.
To draw people into the various habitats, the park has built boardwalks and viewing platforms – the lazy man’s alternative to hiking or canoeing. Wooden decks penetrate jungle-like forest, dense with spiky ferns and palms, along with mangroves draped with vines and Spanish moss. Birds and tree frogs chirp and creak, unseen in the thicket.
Walking just inches above murky brown water teeming with ’gators can feel unnerving; no matter how much one remembers that the only thing likely to bite are the mosquitoes.
Where to eat and stay
For good, rustic accommodation, Miller’s World rents out pine-panelled cabins. There’s an on-site pool and marina, with kayak and power-boat rentals (from £80). The hotel’s restaurant, Oyster House, capitalises on the area’s crop of seafood. For the adventurous, there’s even alligator on the menu (mains from £6).