I’m up to my eyeballs in seafood appetizers, so it takes me a moment to register the change in the music.
Until now, the acoustic guitarist seated beneath a wooden arbour on the beachfront patio at Marker 88 restaurant in Islamorada on Plantation Key has been playing classic rock tunes, but with the shadows lengthening across my table of delicacies, he’s switched to a gentle lullaby. It’s sunset time.
A small crowd has gathered along the narrow pier that juts from the patio into Cotton Key Basin, which is ruffled with wavelets on this soft spring evening. Couples kiss and pose for selfies while children sit quietly, their legs dangling over the water, and watch as the horizon shades from pale yellow to vivid tangerine to dusky lavender.
The song ends as the sun finally disappears, and the diners break into applause, though it’s not clear whether it’s for the guitarist or the sky.
Sunset is a big deal in the Florida Keys, explains Andy McGrotha, Marker 88’s general manager. It’s when his restaurant is busiest, regardless of the time of year. “Our business is built around the sunset — as is all life in the Keys, really. Sun and sand and water.”
Marker 88’s specialty is “Floribbean” cuisine: seafood, fresh-caught in Key Largo, prepared with the flavours and spices of the islands. I try the coconut-battered Keys shrimp and wash it down with a key lime martini — citron vodka, KeKe Beach key lime cream liqueur, pineapple juice and fresh lime juice with a graham cracker rim. My entree is pan-fried yellowtail snapper with key lime beurre blanc, and dessert is — what else? — a thick wedge of house-made key lime pie topped with a sky-high tower of an unbelievably airy meringue.
It’s my first evening of a four-night road trip through the Florida Keys, and I wonder briefly if it’s possible for a person to have too much key lime. But as I’m about to learn, the “anything goes” vibe that has long made these islands a haven for creative types is attracting a new generation of locavores, making the Keys a destination for surprising experiences — culinary and otherwise — that rarely hit a sour note.
There’s something about this archipelago of more than 1,700 islands that calls to drifters and dreamers. Perhaps it’s the fact that it feels more culturally akin to Cuba than to continental North America. The pace of life is unhurried, the communities close-knit and supportive.
Whatever it is, it motivated industrialist Henry Flagler to extend his Florida East Coast Railway from Miami to Key West in 1912, laying much of the groundwork for the 180-kilometre section of U.S. Route 1 that connects the islands today. It also inspired Ernest Hemingway’s pen and Jimmy Buffett’s six-string. And it lured Burlington, Ont., native Craig McBay away from a decade-plus career in fire protection in West Palm Beach to Islamorada, where four years ago he established the Florida Keys Brewing Company a few kilometres down the highway from the Marker 88 restaurant.
“I love the small community,” he says. We’re standing outside the brewery’s old tasting room on a palm-lined street in the Morada Way Arts and Cultural District. A VW van equipped with beer taps and airbrushed with a scene of hibiscus blossoms and surfing marine wildlife is parked across the street. At the end of the block, a cover band’s rendition of The Eagles’ “Take It Easy” wafts out of McBay’s newly opened beer garden, a sun-dappled hideaway where children play giant Jenga as their parents sip pints at brightly painted picnic tables.
McBay fell into brewing via a homebrew kit, a wedding gift from his mother-in-law, and found that he had a knack for it. At the time, no one was making beer in the Upper Keys, so he and his wife Cheryl — a self-described mermaid who’s largely responsible for the brewery’s flower-power aesthetic — seized their opportunity to bottle the island lifestyle. Their beers incorporate local ingredients and have cheeky names like Smelly Butt (a pineapple IPA) and Iguana Bait (a honey hibiscus Kölsch and the company’s top seller).
McBay always envisioned keeping the business local, but after Hurricane Irma caused widespread destruction throughout the Keys in September 2017, he began searching for new markets for his product. His Spearfish Amber, Sunsessional IPA and Iguana Bait are now available up the east coast of Florida, but the heart and soul of the operation remains in Islamorada.
“Every drop of our liquid is made in the Keys,” he says proudly.
Two blocks away is Chef Michael’s, one of a handful of Keys restaurants taking a forward-thinking approach to another challenge: lionfish. The eye-catching, venomous fish, endemic to the Indian and South Pacific oceans, has invaded the Florida Reef, where it devours native species and has few natural predators. Fortunately, it’s also edible when cooked, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has urged restaurants to do their part to eradicate the threat by putting it on the menu. Chef Michael’s brings in about 200 pounds of lionfish per week.
My grilled lionfish appetizer arrives whole, fins, face and all. It’s flaky with a delicately sweet flavour, and when I’m done, I take a selfie with the head, because how often does a meal get to feel like a victory?
The next morning, I’ve got my roadtrip playlist of throwbacks queued up (think Will Smith and early ’80s Madonna) and am en route to Key West, crossing from Marathon to Big Pine Key over the famous Seven Mile Bridge, which is actually 6.79 miles. Completed in 1982, it runs parallel to Flagler’s former railroad, which itself is undergoing a complete restoration and is expected to reopen to pedestrians and cyclists in 2021.
By the time I arrive, I’ve moved on to country music, which seems appropriate given that Old Town, Key West’s historic downtown district, looks and feels a bit like a frontier settlement plucked from the desert and reassembled on the bones of an ancient coral reef. Roosters patrol the streets, oblivious to the mopeds that are the preferred mode of transport for locals and tourists alike.
Live music and laughter float out of the saloons along Duval and Greene streets, home to such venerable drinking institutions as Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s Saloon. During the nightly Sunset Celebration in Mallory Square, I take in a performance by the legendary Cat Man of Key West, who shouts at the somewhat bewildered crowd in French as his trained felines jump through hoops and over the heads of young volunteers.
“People have a live and let live attitude here,” Carol Shaughnessy tells me later that evening over platters of shrimp and pepper-jack grits and beer-braised mussels with chorizo and garlic at Lucy’s Retired Surfers Bar & Restaurant. “As long as you have a good heart and want to be a part of things, you’ll be accepted.”
As the senior account executive for NewmanPR, Shaughnessy’s job is to promote Key West tourism, but she speaks from a place of genuine passion. Originally from Minneapolis, she first visited Key West in 1976 on a break from school and decided to stay. Back then, she says, the elegant wooden houses of the Old Town were tumbledown, the food scene practically non-existent. Now, visitors with an appetite for authentic experiences and locals with a concern for the sustainability of the reef are fuelling a “boat to table” revolution in Key West.
Leading that revolution is Three Hands Fish, a Key West collective that connects local fishermen with local restaurants. As its name suggests, the group’s goal is threefold: support the Keys’ commercial fishery, encourage stewardship of the reef ecosystem, and above all, ensure that the fish on your plate is as fresh as it comes. So far 27 Key West restaurants have signed on as partners of Three Hands Fish, including The Stoned Crab, which Shaughnessy calls the headquarters of the eco-food movement. Another is Blue Heaven, which like many places in town boasts a Hemingway connection: the property once hosted cockfights and Friday night boxing matches refereed by Papa himself.
Then there’s Azur, which specializes in Mediterranean-inspired cuisine but lays on a Floribbean brunch to cure even the most vengeful of post-Duval Street hangovers. The following morning, I try a little of each of the braised beef hash and eggs with black truffle hollandaise and the carbonara breakfast — creamy linguine topped with pancetta, button mushrooms and poached eggs. When the key lime pie French toast comes out, I can see why it’s apparently Azur’s most Instagrammed meal: it’s quite literally a piece of key lime pie sandwiched between two thick slices of grilled bread and drizzled with berry compote.
I text my husband to tell him that I’m leaving him for the French toast. He understands.
Snorkelling in the Keys
After you’ve carbo-loaded on key lime pie, leave the land behind for a while and explore North America’s only living coral barrier reef.
Fury Water Adventures offers half-day snorkelling excursions by catamaran from Key West and they provide all the necessary equipment, so all you have to do is jump in. After dropping anchor at Sand Key, it’s a short swim to the reef, where you’ll encounter yellowtail snappers, parrotfish and other colourful tropical fish, as well as a local landmark, the 165-year-old cast-iron Sand Key Lighthouse.
Sand Key is a favourite snorkelling location that usually offers calm conditions and good underwater visibility. But if you end up venturing out in the wake of one of the region’s notorious winter cold fronts, be prepared to feel a little like a sock in a washing machine. The upside to a bit of hard swimming? You’ll work up a real appetite for your next meal.