I arrived on the tarmac of EYW (the Key West airport code) in the only fashion acceptable for this tiny island: on a private jet. The last time (and my first time) that I visited this seven square-mile island was on a naive drive down Highway 1. It’s a pilgrimage that all locals admit you must take at least one time, but once your badge is awarded, there is little eagerness to return. The 90-mile stretch from the mainland to Key West still takes about three hours due to the existence of only two lanes, amazing rubbernecking scenery and the local behavior of never rushing anywhere.
The tiny rock known affectionately—and aggravatingly—as the “Southernmost Point in the Continental USA” or “Conch Republic” is physically closer to Cuba than to the mainland United State. This is much the same way that New Orleans (“The Northernmost Caribbean City”) is far removed from the rest of America, but culturally rather than geographically.
Palm trees...beautiful architecture...sauntering and sashaying pedestrians. Sounds like Key West. Also New Orleans. Maybe a few places in between.
An unceasing connection in port cities known for their transient demographics and tropical weather may be the modern tourism wave that created “adult playgrounds”. Although the local population is littered with New Englanders and Midwesterners, these “freshwater conchs”, as they are called, help build up the mystique and culture that “Key Weird” is centered on. Due to heavy tourism budgets in both locations, the bloodlines of locals and visitors are clearly visible. The coexistence of populations happens over simple joys: good food, live music and an easily obtainable bar. Sound familiar?
True, New Orleans has more diversity, and there is no other American city that compares to the culture in our tiny swamp bowl. And yet Key West has what I’ve been missing most sweltering NOLA days: that pristine crystal clear water. On the island, I can zoom past the old men in tiny Speedos, the young groups of snowbird collegiates looking for their next drink, and the trolleys cruising past every picturesque tourist spot…and be a part of the island. Getting lost in the tiny enclaves of residential zones, with palm trees covering everything from dilapidated porches and screen doors to newly renovated masterpieces, is what my soul needs. Key West delivered, again and again.
“Well, hiring loyal and reliable hospitality staff may be your biggest concern. Lots of times you call ‘em to come in and they don’t pick up their phone ‘til the next day,” a local once told me at a farmers’ market.
“Everyone’s ‘on a boat’.”
Similarly, in New Orleans, it’s not an uncommon practice to have no-call, no-shows during Mardi Gras, Halloween or holiday time. Lots of phones seem to be “indisposed” at very inopportune times in our two cities.
The one general connection among cities in the South is: once it hits May, you should opt for other means of transportation than just walking in the heat.
Adventures are typically second nature to me and it comes as a surprise to myself and to others that I have never ridden a scooter. Maybe it’s my blatant hatred of roads and traffic in New Orleans, or the sporadic rain showers that could ruin my day. Regardless, Key West will be memorialized as the place where I lost my two-wheeled virginity. Maybe that’s the perfect place for it.
The similarities may best be summed up by my conversation with the scooter rental employee. This same guy complaining about having to “stand out in the heat” is also half a block away from teal and turquoise water beckoning everyone who lays their eyes on it.
“One thing to remember when you’re driving around is that pedestrians and people on bikes are what we like to call ‘land sharks’. They will walk out into the middle of the road, blow through lights and stop signs, and generally not see you. As soon as they stop moving, they’re dead. That’s a land shark.”
“Well, unfortunately, we deal with the same in New Orleans: visitors always looking the wrong way down a one-way street so they can look at the architecture. Bikers going down the wrong way on streets…”
“Oh, and also, you should drive in the middle of the road.”
“People love to open their doors without looking to see what’s coming. You could get hit quite easily.”
“Yeah, we’ve got that goin’ on too.”
Originally written for Where Y'at.