Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Real Florida

By Paul Gerald

MARCH 8, 1999:  I was looking down at a 4-foot barracuda, and he was neither on a plate nor in a tank. He was right where he lives, down between the coral and the sea grass, about six miles off the coast and 15 feet below the surface of Largo Sound. He was just sitting there, long and silver, a foot off the bottom, not moving at all. He looked like he was staring at me.

I thought I owed him an apology for being there. He was probably about to eat or mate when I came along, and now there were three of us staring at him. But soon we were distracted by a ray, several feet across, whipping across the top of the reef. We tried to follow him but kept getting distracted by green-and-blue fish and pencil-looking fish and tiny yellow fish and who knows what all.

We were swimming in John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, Florida. And yes, there really is a Key Largo. The Bogart/Bacall movie was made there, but they changed the name from Rock Harbor in 1949, after the movie came out. Bogart’s original African Queen is in town, as well.

Key Largo is the first Key you reach after leaving the mainland, about an hour south of Miami, and from there on out to Key West is 113 miles of highway, winding from island to island, through the tropical beauty of the mangroves and beaches and also through the all-American kitsch of the RV resorts and the coral statuary stores.

Kids in a car could have quite a game driving down U.S. 1, with each kid counting stores selling either shells, T-shirts, or Key lime pie. But the Florida state park system’s motto is “the Real Florida,” and Pennekamp is a perfect example of it. To get there you’ll have to drive past a seafood restaurant that has a big shark’s mouth on the roof with a pair of legs dangling out of it, but once you’re in the park you’re more likely to share your table with a not-too-shy curly-beaked ibis.

Pennekamp Park, with its boat rentals and snorkeling, diving, and glass-bottomed boat tours, is adjacent to the Florida Keys National Maritime Sanctuary. The two add up to 2,800 square nautical miles of coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangrove swamps, all over the Keys. North America’s only coral barrier reef is about six miles off the coast; between there and the mainland is a place of dreams for those who would paddle, sail, swim, or fish. There are 600 species of fish and 285 species of birds in the Keys, and it’s virtually impossible, once you’re down there, to get more than a couple miles from the ocean.

We had paid $28 each for a 30-minute boat ride out to a reef called Grecian Rocks. It’s one of 18 highly visited reefs that have buoys on them to tie your boat to. We spent an hour and a half cruising around in the water with our fins, masks, and snorkels, all included in the price. Barracudas quickly became ho-hum, they were so numerous, and they’ve never attacked anybody in park history, anyway. People from 8 years old to 80 were on that boat. Life vests are required, so if you can make it across a swimming pool alive, you can snorkel.

It’s a real dose of perspective. You look at the ocean and you think that somewhere out there there’s some fish, but otherwise it’s a big gray mass. But then you get out there and look under the water, and there’s fish everywhere. I would follow one fish for a while, watching him eat and hang out under rocks and get knocked around by the current. Or I would pick a spot and see what came by — maybe one of those big green-and-blue dudes that swims along the reef on his side and occasionally pounds his face into it, presumably to eat.

Eating is just what I had in mind as we wound through the mangroves in the late-afternoon light, coming in from snorkeling. And it was clear what my meal would include — for what American can fail to eat, if only to say they did so? — some Key lime pie in the Keys.

So I went looking for a bar and grill, which down there is like looking for a pizza place in Chicago. I almost missed the place I chose, because I was contemplating a billboard saying “Homes from just $199,999!” Tucked away beside the road, almost hidden by its own sign, was an empty-looking place called the Cracked Conch.

The Cracked Conch is a little slice of another “real” Florida. It’s not the kind that makes the brochures, but if you’ve been in or on the ocean all day, something fried and something hoppy might be just what you need.

The fried options included conch, chicken, calamari, soft-shell crabs, conch fritters, and bananas. And also gator, which is what I felt compelled to have. If you’re wondering, it’s sort of chewy, and most of what I tasted was the Cajun-flavored breading.

I munched my food and drank my beers and let my mind wander on down the Keys. Oh, to have a boat and a few months’ worth of cash! Could you ever get tired of the sun and the water and the relaxation? If it’s possible to get tired of such a thing, I’d like to do so.

Just at the end of my beer, out came the Key lime pie — and it was yellow! I asked if maybe this was the lemon meringue pie, but the waitress stiffened and said, “No, this is the best Key lime pie in the Keys. It’s yellow because Key limes are yellow. All those other pies you see? They’re colored.”

She came back a few minutes later to find me still nibbling away, trying to make the experience of eating that pie in that place at that time last as long as I could. She asked how it was, and I said, “Mmmmm.”

“That’s the real thing,” she said.

“In the real Florida,” I thought.

Look for Key Largo at www.fla-keys.com, one of a dozen such sites, or call (800) 822-1088 for more information.

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