On September 10, 2017, the strongest Cape Verde-type hurricane in the Atlantic in over a decade plowed through the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and finally turned toward Florida in the United States. Hurricane Irma formed early on as a Category 5 storm (sustained winds exceeding 156 mph) before it hit the Caribbean’s Leeward islands – the first Cat 5 storm to ever strike there on record.
As a resident of southwest Florida, I can tell you it was not a good time to be in the Sunshine State. This was my first brush with any significant hurricane since moving to Florida a few years ago and it was a whopper. Looking back, the worst part may have been the feeling of impending doom over what felt like the longest lead-up to a natural disaster ever. We had no idea what to expect for two weeks, living in what The Weather Channel called the “cone of uncertainty”, but in the end, Irma decided to land right at our front door.
In the aftermath of the storm – after the eye moved through, the water receded, and we could access the damage to our property and spirit – some of the news we’d heard about the overall damage turned out to be a bit (no pun intended) overblown.
“Key West is gone.… wiped away by the storm”. The news about one of our favorite places in Florida came as a shock. But just days later we breathed a sign of relief when more accurate reports came out — Key West was not only not devastated, but the recovery efforts had already begun. A week after the hurricane, we decided to take a break from our own clean-up and enjoy a long weekend to celebrate our anniversary and support some of our favorite places in the Conch Republic.
The Florida Keys have had their share of hurricanes through the years and have withstood them all with varying degrees of damage. We’d been in Key West before during the summer rainy season and knew what just a few inches of rain could do – let’s just say it’s not unheard of to see small waves under your barstool along Duval Street now and then. So we were a little nervous as to what we might find when we arrived. But as our cab drove through Old Town, we were relieved to see that the extent of the damage appeared minimal. Lots of trees were down and piles of debris lined the streets but otherwise it wasn’t as bad as we’d heard. Just three weeks after Hurricane Irma blew through, Key West was officially back in business.
The Southernmost Point in the USA
If you’ve never been there before, the Florida Keys are a chain of islands beginning at southeast Florida’s mainland, and stretching out 165 miles to the southwest before ending in Key West, just 90 miles from Cuba. Parts of the Keys are so narrow in places you can see the Atlantic Ocean to your left and the Bay of Florida and Gulf of Mexico off to your right as you drive south on US1 to the “Southernmost Point in the USA”. Key West has been home to a string of colorful characters over the years including most famously Ernest Hemingway, and that sense of rebellious adventure is what draws so many visitors to the town. Today, despite being a popular port of call for cruises, you can still find some of that unique charm if you know where to look.
Check Out The Beaches
Even though the Keys are a chain of mangrove islands, that doesn’t mean you can’t find good beaches. We headed to Smathers Beach one evening to take in the view of some of the sailboats that were marooned after the storm and were happy to find the beaches in great shape. It was also the first time in years we’d been to Smathers Beach, and it was nice to see so many locals enjoying them. Higgs Beach near the Southernmost Point Buoy is also a great beach and has a poignant AIDS Memorial that’s worth visiting.
New and Delicious Additions to Old Town
Parts of Old Town Key West have undergone some major redevelopment in recent years like the historic Seaport, but not enough to detract from its charm. Many of our favorite eating and watering holes are still there, and we even found some fun new spots like several rum distilleries that are open for tours and tastings. And the rum is pretty good – Papa Hemingway would have approved! We even tasted a special batch of “hurricane rum” whose flavor changed from the dip in barometric pressure during the storm!
Go to Mallory Square for Sunset
When you visit Key West, you head to Mallory Square for sunset – everyone does – because the sunset here is truly cause for celebration, where you and thousands of your new best friends will witness quite a spectacle. I don’t know what causes the sky here to explode into fiery blazes like it does, but I suppose that’s not important – to enjoy it is enough.
Get Out On the Water
The Florida Keys is all about the beautiful water, so when you’re here, get out on the water – or in it! Cruising the shallow waters around Key West on a sailing excursion or a sunset cruise is a great way to enjoy the day. And the diving and snorkeling in the Keys is world-class. Add some late afternoon snorkeling to a sunset cruise and you have the best of both. For a bird’s eye view of the island – parasailing is some of the most fun you can have.
Cruise Around Old Town
Cruising around Old Town is a great way to see Key West and explore it’s Bahamian conch-inspired architecture, tree lined streets, and attractions around town. You can rent bicycles, scooters, and even tricked-out golf carts to ride around. Do the classic Duval Crawl and crawl your favorite pubs until you’ve had enough. Check out the Key West Lighthouse and Bahama Village, an historic neighborhood nearby, and grab lunch at a local eatery. For a truly unique glimpse into those Key West residents now dearly departed, the Key West Cemetery in Old Town is not to be missed. Some of the funniest and craziest epitaphs ever – look for the most famous “I Told You I Was Sick!”
We learned some valuable lessons from the hurricane – some of them quite unexpected and some that’ll help prepare us for the next one. For starters, don’t believe everything you hear in the news. While places like Puerto Rico and the middle Florida Keys fared far worse, other communities like Key West were quickly on the mend. And it never occurred to us that it might actually be a good time to visit Key West after they’d gone through an event like this. But the good will and financial support from tourism dollars goes a long way in speeding up the recovery effort of any hard hit community. Seeing a community at its most vulnerable also allows you to see an authenticity that’s not always visible. With fewer tourists in the weeks following the storm, we enjoyed spending time with locals who were out and about connecting with their neighbors. The sense of community and resilience was overwhelming and it felt really good to be there.
Hurricane Irma certainly left her mark on Florida and the Caribbean, and places like Key West will have stories to tell for years to come. Though the palm trees may be missing a few fronds, it’s nice to know Key West is still a sunny place for shady people.