By Ben Barron, who works and writes for Kenwood Travel Florida Holidays.
The Florida Keys are a diverse archipelago that are made up of more than 1700 islands and cays. They can be found to the southeast of the Floridian peninsula and are not far from Miami, the Keys lie within the Florida Straits which divide the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the vast amount of different islands the Florida Keys boast a cultural heritage that covers a wide spectrum, it is also home to some of the most important areas of natural beauty on the planet.
The largest city in the Florida Keys is Key West. The city has a colourful heritage and has welcomed some very famous faces throughout the years. Various US presidents including Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy have spent time in Key West. The area also served as a retreat for literary greats. It is rumoured that Ernest Hemingway penned ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ in Key West, it is also said that Tennessee Williams wrote the first draft of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ while staying in the area.
It isn’t only culture that is on the menu in the Florida Keys however. To get a real sense of nature here it’s best to head to the Lower Keys, these are the least developed and thus still home to many animals including Key Deer. No trip to this part of the world would be complete without enjoying the cobalt waters that grace the shores. The Adolphus Busch Sr. (which was sunk intentionally in 1998) has a wide variety of marine life, including a 350lb Goliath Grouper, living within it and can be explored through organised diving trips.
Perhaps one of the liveliest moments in the Florida Keys’ history was the forming of the ‘Conch Republic’ in 1982. The formation of the republic came about when the US Border Patrol set up a block on the road leading to the Florida Keys from Florida City on the mainland, the purpose of this was to check cars for drugs and illegal immigrants. Little did the powers that be know it, but they’d just set the wheels in motion for the start of a revolution! Where the US Government saw an invaluable resource for stopping the flow of narcotics and immigrants invading their shores, the people of the Florida Keys saw an off-putting inconvenience for potential visitors (and their money) to the local area.
After numerous attempts by the Key West City Council to get the troublesome roadblock removed, Key West’s mayor Dennis Wardlow declared the Florida Keys an independent state on 23rd April, 1982. Wardlow argued that justification lay in the fact that if America insisted on setting up a border control style station to the Keys as if it were a foreign nation, why not actually become a foreign nation? What followed next was rather strange.
The newly formed Conch Republic declared war on the United States. No really, it did. It did this by holding a symbolic ceremony that wouldn’t be too out of place in a David Lynch film. The USA (represented by a man dressed in a naval uniform) had a stale loaf of Cuban bread broken over its head by Mayor Wardlow, who then after a minute pleaded with the US to accept the Conch Republic’s surrender and hand over one billion dollars in foreign aid.
In 1995 the Republic was able to flex its military muscles against the old enemy after the US announced it would conduct an army training exercise on Key West in order to simulate the invasion of a foreign island. This led the outraged Conch Republic to again declare all-out war on the USA. What followed was a conflict involving the firing of water cannons from fireboats and hitting people with yet more stale Cuban bread, no one was safe from the might of the Republic. As a result the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion, who were behind the planned training exercise, issued a full apology to the Conch people and officially surrendered on the 22nd September 1995, two days after the war began.
The Florida Keys really do have everything needed for a fantastic trip. The area is outstandingly steeped in culture considering its size and home to a wonderful array of wildlife. The local people are also a real highlight of the area and, as evidenced by the exploits of the Conch Republic, are blessed with a great sense of humour. The only downside is trying to find the time to fit everything in.