|Wasting Away in Margaritaville
by Jim McGee
The sun isn't up yet but the sky is beginning to glow with the first rays of dawn. The cool air is humid and raises goose bumps on my arms. A curious rooster watches as I unchain my bicycle. There was a storm last night and there are puddles and palm fronds under foot as I wheel the bike out to head for that first cup of Cuban coffee.
Early morning is a magic time of day for me in Key West. Streets normally crowded with people, bikes, and mopeds, are the domain of the chickens and roosters that roam this side of the island (it's against the law to hurt the chickens). The air is sometimes heavy with the smell of the ocean, but last nights' storm has left the air smelling fresh and clear. The cool morning breeze belies the humid heat that will settle in this afternoon.
At 3 miles by 5 miles a bicycle really is the best way to get around the island. No parking problems, a leisurely pace, and none of the noise of the mopeds. It's just you and your thoughts.
I pedal a couple of blocks over to the M&M coffee shop for some café con leche. This Cuban coffee with steamed milk is another of the island's pleasures that I can't seem to get enough of. The M&M is just a little coffee shop in a coin operated laundry but their coffee and Cuban bread are a fantastic way to start your day.
As I sip a big steaming cup I watch the bottoms of the clouds continue to brighten. If I really wanted to hop to it, I could pedal over and shoot the sunrise on the Atlantic side. But there are only a few high clouds this morning, so I tell myself the sunrise really won't have that much drama. Besides - I'm really enjoying my coffee.
I decide I'll head over to the gulf side and grab some shots of the boats in the marina. It's the tail end of the yacht races and I've been able to shoot some beautiful racing and cruising sailors the past few days. After walking the marina I'll peddle back up into Old Town. By then the time will be right to shoot the sun dappled porches of the old Conch houses (pronounced Conk).
Built by ship wrights during Key West's hey day as a home to wreckers and salvagers, the Conch houses in Old Town were built with post and beam construction and pegged joints so that they could withstand hurricanes and violent storms. Their fanciful exteriors, with complex patterns of gingerbread hide this sturdy construction. Palm trees shade the porches (seemingly every house in Key West has a front porch), and gates often hide beautiful gardens and fountains nestled in small courtyards. I easily burn through several rolls of film.
The first beads of sweat starting under my shirt tell me as clearly as my eyes that the tropical sun is starting to assert itself. I peddle back to the M&M for another cup of café con leche, then over to a little shop and buy a couple of spicy Jamaican meat pies to take back to the hotel for breakfast. My wife is up and showered, and after our little snack we bike out to Ft. Zachary Taylor National Park. It's a pleasant walk out along the beach and I grab a couple of shots of sail boats heading out though the channel and of pelicans fishing in the shallow waters by the rocks, but the magic hour and the magic light are gone.
At the end of the beach two cruise ships dominate the horizon, towering over Key West. With the exception of the old La Concha hotel and a couple of the new hotels most buildings on the island are two and three stories tall. These behemoths are floating cities that have materialized out of nowhere and tower over the town.
We pedal back up to Duval Street which is the main drag in Old Town. Duval is a tacky mix of bars, t-shirt shops, and tourist traps, and I love it. Many of the bars have colorful histories that revolve around characters like Earnest Hemingway, Sloppy Joe, Tennessee Williams, Captain Tony, and Jimmy Buffett. Pirates, wreckers, and rogues have all called Key West home and they're all represented on Duval.
I grab a fresh rolled cigar to smoke while we window shop among the hordes of cruise ship commandos. Key West was once one of the largest cigar producers in the world. The industry was fueled by immigrants from Cuba which is only 90 miles away. We're standing closer to Havana then to Miami. Tucked off of Duval are a number of small cigar shops where you can watch as cigars are hand rolled. And if you're so inclined the flavor of these freshly rolled cigars is better then any I've ever gotten from shops back home. Fill flash is highly recommended if shooting inside these shops as they are usually lit only by the light shining through their open fronts.
My cigar finished we decide to escape the cruise ship crowds and duck into one of the bars for a drink. The bars look like something out of a movie from the 30's or 40's and with good reason, most pre-date that time. The storm shutters on the walls are folded up to let the breeze through and lazy ceiling fans further stir the air. A Yellow Lab comes over to say hello and get a scratch behind the ear before his owner notices and calls him back (many of the bars in Key West welcome dogs and cats). Out of the sun it feels 20 degrees cooler, and the fact that we're having that first rum runner of the day before most respectable people are even thinking about lunch somehow makes it taste a little sweeter.
Sunsets in Key West don't just happen, they're an event. There is a local ordinance that the cruise ships must leave well before sunset so as not to interfere with the view. Every night there is a festival on Mallory Square (on the Gulf side of the island) to celebrate the sunset. The sunset festival features a mixture of jugglers, dog acts, henna tattoo artists, and food vendors. It just happens each night and each performer has their own area staked out.
But the real show is the sunset itself. They really are spectacular. As the sun is going down you'll see sailboats and big sailing ships heading out to catch the sunset over the water. If you're on shore they make great elements in your pictures, back lit by the soft yellow, orange glow of the setting sun. I haven't shot from out on one of those ships yet but I plan to. If a storm is rolling in, as often happens in the evening, the sunset can be truly spectacular.
The conditions to look for are a clear horizon and storm clouds between you and the horizon. As the sun dips below the clouds they will be lit from below with brilliant oranges, and you may even get a chance to photograph some lightning in those clouds as the sun sets. The one time I did see an active thunderstorm coming in at sunset I had left my camera back in the room. We watched the show from a bar on the dock., Margarita in hand. In retrospect I was actually glad I forgot the camera. Watching that fast moving storm come in was a wonderful experience in and of itself. And don't worry about the rain when the storm finally arrives. I've yet to see a storm last more then 15 minutes - but those 15 minutes can be spectacular.
Another good vantage point to photograph sunsets is from the top of the La Concha hotel. It is the oldest hotel in Key West and the tallest building. They have a bar and deck on the top of the hotel. Each evening at sunset they open the bar for an hour or so while the sun is setting. Everyone sits at the rail with their drink and watches the show. Once the sun sets the bar closes and everyone heads down to Duval and kicks the evening into gear.
The photo opportunities don't stop when the sun goes down. Duval and the area down around the marina are a tropical version of Bourbon Street. There is no shortage of neon, nightlife, parrots, and characters to shoot. Just keep an eye on your equipment in the crowded bars. Sticky rum drinks spilled in modern cameras are not a good combination. I would worry about spilled drinks more then stolen cameras as long as you're not foolish about where you leave your gear.
Finally, I'd recommend you drive back to Miami or Tampa for
your flight home rather then taking the commuter out of Key
West's little airport. Allow four to six hours for the drive up
the coast (vs. one for the flight) depending on how slow you want
to go. I usually make a couple of stops on the way back and there
are some cool spots to pull out for pictures, seafood, and that final rum drink.
Early morning is a magic time of day in Key West
Seemingly every house in Key West has a front porch
Sunsets in Key West don't just happen, they're an event
Duval Street is a tropical version of Bourbon Street
text and photography copyright © 2001 Vivid Light Publishing