I return from my vacation a changed woman. No, really — I’m talking deep, significant changes. I’m quite sure my sunburn penetrated layers of my epidermis (maybe even my dermis?) that weren’t due to be exposed to the sun for another five years.
For the first time in my adult life, I have … A TAN. Pity no one will see it before it fades, thanks to being buried under layers of winter armour. Still, and I’m going against years of anti-tan conditioning here (pasty white skin + NZ’s lack of an ozone layer do not make for sun smart), man does it feel nice to have a bit of colour.
It ain’t no St. Tropez I’m sporting but a touch of the old Key West glow. Two weeks’ vacation in the land of soothing sun and midday drinking was a very welcome break from the pains of February — widely known (in the northern hemisphere, at least) as winter’s final Eff You.
It’s hard to believe I’ve made the trip down south seven times now, and have yet to get bored of the place. In fact, with a whole two weeks to play around, I actually managed to venture out beyond my old favourites. I even experienced a few firsts, including:
My first time riding a bike in about ten years (look out pedestrians, cars, small pets). Key West is made for cyclists. It’s such a small city, and parking can be a pain, so what better way to get around than to cruise its pretty streets, with a sweet, balmy breeze to cool your skin. I scraped the odd fence and suffered a few bruises, but with days consisting of nothing more than: cycle down to beach, grab beer at beach bar, cycle back home, it was more than worth the effort.
My first time fishing. I’ve felt conflicted about the idea of fishing. Granted, I don’t actually eat fish, so there’s never been much motivation there anyway, but sport fishing has always seemed particularly cruel. “Hey, yeah, sorry about that giant hook through your gullet, but I just wanted to see if I could actually catch you. So, now I have and I’m just gonna chuck you back overboard. But no hard feelings, right?” Anyway, turns out, fishing can be kind of fun. Especially if you catch the fish (I did! I did!), and eat it for dinner that night (I didn’t! Well, I tried a tiny forkful, but others enjoyed the rest!).
My first trip to the Key West Aquarium. When you have enough time to kill in one place, you’re afforded the luxury of visiting spots you previously wouldn’t have considered must-sees. I’ve got to be honest, I wouldn’t call the Aquarium a must-see exactly, but it had a few charms of its own. Ignoring the usual sad issues that exist with keeping animals in captivity (ten nurse sharks squished into a paddling pool; a giant eel curled up in the corner of a tiny glass tank, its mouth continuously gaping open as if to plead, “Help. Help.”), I enjoyed seeing kids have fun in the ‘Touch Tank’, patting stingrays and squeezing sea cucumbers. And the sea horses. Seriously, I never get sick of seeing a sea horse. Nature’s just crazy sometimes.
Continuing the animal theme, my first visit to the Key West Wildlife Center. Happily, this was worth checking out. A not-for-profit organisation, the Wildlife Center rescues and rehabilitates injured wild birds, plus many of Key West’s famous wild chickens and roosters that are brought in by concerned/annoyed residents. The Center is free to visit (but accepts donations) and really is a lovely respite from the usual tourist traps. We fought off a few pesky mosquitoes and enjoyed the shady, leafy stroll through the grounds, checking out the stars of the show, including herons, pelicans, vultures and more. Bonus #1: Turtle Pond, where we fed kibble to countless cute turtles (and a few ballsy herons). Bonus #2: Giant iguanas! We could barely catch a glimpse of these massive beasts as they dashed from view as soon as we approached. Those things are fast.
My first Cuban coffee. Cuban food is big in Key West (Havana is closer than Miami) and while I’ve enjoyed plenty of tasty Cuban dishes on previous trips, I had yet to sample the famous brew. Luckily, Ana’s Cuban Cafe, a tiny joint removed from the main drag and just a few minutes from our house, promised ‘Key West’s Best Coffee’. Enough said. I ordered my cafe con leche to go and strolled home, hoping it would stay hot enough on the journey. No problems there — is it a Cuban tradition to serve the coffee at boiling point? It took a good ten minutes till I could take a sip, but it went down smoothly — strong and just a little bit sweet.
It’s always satisfying to end a holiday feeling like you did it all. This Key West time around, I got in the all-important quota of sheer laziness and relaxation (2pm Scrabble & beer session, anyone?), plus checked a few new experiences off the list. I think I’ve set the bar pretty high for next time.