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In Pursuit of Pleasure - Daydreaming in The Middle Keys

Posted By Peggy Sijswerda, Sunday, April 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Kick off your dress shoes and grab a pair of flip flops. Toss your work attire and jump into comfy shorts and a t-shirt. Leave your makeup behind—a natural glow from the sun is all you’ll need to look your best. Blow dryer? I don’t think so. Wash-and-wear hair is just fine down here in the Florida Keys.

Anything goes in these tropical islands—an enchanting place where seeking pleasure becomes the number-one priority. It’s why I escape to the Keys as often as I can: to spoil myself with the good life. Here I let the island breezes wash over me as I languish under a palm tree. Above rustling fronds whisper, and a soothing fountain splashes nearby. In the distance a fishing boat passes through the channel, its engine chugging as it glides through turquoise waters. Beyond the channel, the Atlantic spreads southward from horizon to horizon, a smooth, glassy mirror that reflects the soft hues of a velvety blue sky.

In fact, everywhere I turn a painting meets my gaze, like a canvas unveiled by a confident artist. Even inches from where I lie, brilliant tropical plants in fiery shades of red and gold against a lush green backdrop create yet another still life for me to savor. I sip my frosty beverage, close my eyes, and doze as the tinkling sounds of steel drums playing down by the lagoon carry my thoughts far away.

I dream of island hopping on a gleaming catamaran with my husband and sons. In my fantasy I home school the boys a few hours a week, but we learn more than books can teach about nature, culture, and history while sailing the seas. We fish for dinner and listen to mellow Jack Johnson tunes as the lapping waves and gently flapping sails provide back-up rhythm. In my fantasy my family and I sail into a colorful sunset every evening, thankful for the chance to explore the wondrous world together.


I snap back to the present, but keep my fantasy close at hand. In fact, I plan to devote lots of time to daydreaming during my four-day visit to the Keys. I’m staying at Hawk’s Cay, a sixty-acre resort about halfway between Key Largo and Key West. Just to the south is Marathon, the second largest city in the Keys and one I got to know pretty well when friends of mine resided there. Sad to say, they relocated to the mainland ("tired of hurricanes,” they said), so it’s been five years since I got a Keys’ fix. It’s good to be here.

The vibe in the Middle Keys is different from the frenetic pace of Key West. It’s slower, calmer: a waltz instead of hip-hop. While Key West has its own charms, folks around here are seeking an escape from the faster currents, slowing way down to a leisurely paddle. Everyone I meet is on island time. Don’t worry, be happy is the mantra for visitors to Hawk’s Cay, where you’ll find whatever you need to enjoy a vacation in paradise.

You can opt for a few days of laid-back attitude adjustment and lounge around the lagoon or hang out poolside. Or visit Indies Spa, where 7,000 square feet of pampering pleasure are at your disposal. If you prefer a more active vacation, choose from a variety of wet-and-wild water sports or resort activities. On my visit I decide to do a little of everything: some serious downtime complimented by snorkeling, sailing, and the highlight of my visit, a swim with the dolphins at the resort’s on-site dolphin facility.

First things first: where’s the pool? Actually there are five pools at Hawk’s Cay. I like the adult pool next to the Atlantic, where cool breezes offer an antidote to the ninety-degree temps. For families the resort’s main pool offers plenty of room for swimming and sunning. Beyond is the shallow saltwater lagoon that lets cool water from the ocean in but keeps larger fish out. Ringed by sandy beaches, it’s the perfect place for kids to build sandcastles and romp in the water.

Hawk’s Cay is an awesome destination for families. Besides water sports, the resort features special activities, such as glow-in-the-dark volleyball, dive-in movies, and kids-night out. Parents can also sign children up for the Little Pirates Club (ages 4-5) or the Island Adventures Club (ages 6-11). Supervised activities include games, arts and crafts, swimming, and sports. There’s also a playground and an interactive pool by the kids’ clubhouse with a pirate ship and cannons that spout water.

Accommodations at Hawk’s Cay are suited for families, couples, or groups of friends. Villas with one-, two-, and three-bedrooms feature a balcony or porch and a fully equipped kitchen. Most have stunning views. You can also stay at the Inn at Hawk’s Cay in a spacious room overlooking the pool or tropical gardens. Four full-service restaurants serve a variety of menu options. My favorite is Porto Cayo, where Caribbean flavors join forces with Mediterranean cuisine. After trying a cup of refreshing lobster bisque one evening, I order herb-grilled rack of lamb with a pomegranate demi-glace accompanied by risotto and savory vegetables. It’s a perfect marriage of textures and flavors, and I relish every bite.

Breakfast is served in the Palm Terrace buffet style, and each morning I indulge in my favorites: smoked salmon with capers and onions, luscious fresh tomatoes and cool cottage cheese, and Eggs Benedict with a lemony Hollandaise that’s the best I’ve ever tasted. Fresh-squeezed orange juice and steaming hot coffee provide additional fuel for the day’s activities. I’ll need it.


Now comes the hard part: figuring out what to do. I decide to join a snorkeling excursion aboard Island Time with Captain Dave and twenty or so passengers. We cruise out to a reef five miles south of Hawk’s Cay called Coffin Patch. Legend has it that a boat carrying coffins sank here, but Capt. Dave says all we’ll see are the remains of an old lighthouse.

Jason, the first mate, passes out snorkel gear, and after donning my fins and mask, I dive into the warm waters of the Atlantic and suddenly find myself surrounded by dozens of Little Nemo look-alikes. As my eyes focus underwater, I see they’re actually not clownfish, but a type of damselfish called sergeant majors, cute little fellows with black and yellow stripes. I’m mesmerized as they swim inches from my face. They seem to be as curious about me as I am about them.

That’s what I love about snorkeling: the experience of entering another dimension, one that’s inhabited by creatures we never see, yet they’re right under our noses. I could spend hours here, swimming through the crystal clear water, watching the fish, like sparkling jewels, dart in every direction. On the bottom a coral reef offers hiding places for these colorful creatures. It’s dotted with clumps of brain coral and purple sea fans that wave at me as I swim by.

Too soon two blasts of the ship’s horn signal it’s time to go. As we head back to the marina at Hawk’s Cay, a flying fish splashes across the ocean’s surface in a joyous dance, glittering in the afternoon sun. It’s as if he’s reminding us to celebrate life, especially down here in this magical setting, where the sea and the sky blend into an intoxicating cocktail, a recipe that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

The magic continues the next evening when I board Horizon, a 40-foot catamaran, for a sunset cruise with Captain Dale and his first mate, Jessica. The breeze beckons as we motor through the channel, and cumulus clouds to the west promise an extraordinary show. But first we sail southward, zipping along at about ten knots, the sun warm and the breeze refreshing. Jessica offers wine, beer, soda, and champagne to guests, and soon we’re all becoming acquainted, sharing a sense of adventure on the high seas. Someone’s hat blows overboard, and we’re all sorry for his loss, chuckling and remembering when the same thing happened to us. We take photos of each other and talk about music and life and family. By journey’s end as the sun sets in a pink and orange neon sky, we’re sad to pull up to the dock and bid goodbye to our sunset friends.

The following day I make new friends in the water—six of them, in fact: Allie, April, Balla, Nemo, Sebastian, and Wilson. My friends are bottle-nosed dolphins, residents of a beautiful lagoon at Hawk’s Cay and participants in the Dolphin Connection, a program that lets visitors interact with dolphins both from dockside and in the water. I’m signed up for Dolphin Discovery and can’t wait to enjoy an up-close encounter with these giant, gentle creatures.

First Stacy, one of the trainers, goes over a few safety rules designed to protect both the dolphins and the guests. She explains that even though these dolphins are used to humans, they are still wild animals and need to be treated with care and respect. She continues to discuss a few points about the Florida Keys ecosystem, and then we’re finally allowed to put on our life jackets and meet the dolphins.

I’m joined by Bobby and Emily Lyerly, a brother and sister from Destin. Big smiles fill their faces as we line up in the water to meet April, who’s actually the mother of some of the other dolphins. The trainer invites us to pet April, and I’m surprised at how much she feels like hard rubber—and by how immense she is. Stretching to a length of eight feet or so, April dwarfs us humans, but she acts like a big puppy, playful and happy to be the center of attention.

I’m hoping that swimming with the dolphins will be part of the program, but Stacy explains that it’s simply not healthy for dolphins to tow humans holding onto their dorsal fins. Luckily, lots of other activities are included in Dolphin Discovery. I get to pet, hug, kiss, tickle, feed, scratch, splash, and dance with the dolphins. The experience is exhilarating, although tightly scripted. No time for mystical interactions with these sweet beasts. The only unscripted event is when one of the cute little sergeant majors takes a liking to a freckle on my leg and decides to give it a nibble. Ouch!


On the morning of my last day at Hawk’s Cay, I find a mystical encounter of another kind: a hot stone massage in the peaceful environs of Indies Spa. Under the capable hands of Mary-Rachel, I drift off into another daydream and find myself wandering through a hot desert. In the distance an oasis with palm trees and cool shade calls my name. Once there I lie down on a cushioned bed and feel the magic of the stones smoothing my cares away.

Too soon the stones stop, the daydream ends, and I reluctantly say goodbye to Mary-Rachel. Fortunately, I don’t have far to go. I’m spending my final afternoon by the pool, where I melt into a comfortable lounge chair in a shady spot overlooking the ocean. As I look southward over the Atlantic, I see white sails way off in the distance. I recall my island-hopping fantasy and consider the possibility of making it come true.

This happens to me whenever I come to the Keys. Something gets into my soul, my wires cross—or maybe they become uncrossed, and all of a sudden, I’m ready to run away from the real world.

I don’t. I return to my responsible life, where I own a business, keep house, ferry kids to soccer practices—do all those things expected of me. But look out! One day the urge will become too strong to ignore. Then that will be me under the white sails slowly disappearing over the edge of the horizon.


For more information, visit or call 800-432-2242. Hawk’s Cay Resort (MM 61) also welcomes groups for meetings, family reunions, and weddings.

You can opt to fly into Miami and rent a car. It’s about a two-hour drive to Hawk’s Cay. Or you can fly into Key West (about a 75-minute drive) or directly to Marathon Airport, just eight miles south of the resort.

What to do in Marathon: I’m happy to find Marathon and environs haven’t changed much since my last visit five years ago. It’s true that Hurricane Wilma came through with a vengeance in October 2005, and clean up and renovation continue, but overall it’s business as usual. If you have time to explore the area, here are a few recommended outings:

Crane Point Museums and Nature Center (MM 50)

Learn about natural history, explore a historic home, walk on nature trails, and enjoy an interactive children’s museum. Visit or call 305-743-9100.

Pigeon Key (MM 47)

Enjoy a free hike along part of the old Seven-Mile Bridge or hop in a trolley to Pigeon Key, where history buffs will enjoy learning about Henry Flagler and his efforts to build a railway to Key West. Call 305-289-0225.

Curry Hammock State Park (MM 56)

Enjoy a secluded beach, nature trails, camping, and picnic facilities. Visit or call 305-289-2690.

The Island Fish Co.

(MM 54) This picturesque restaurant features the largest tiki bar I’ve ever seen and is one of the best spots for watching the sunset. Try the grilled shrimp tacos for a tasty treat. Visit or call 305-743-4191.

Peggy Sijswerda is editor and publisher of Tidewater Women and lives in Virginia Beach with her husband and three sons.

Tags:  Florida  Hawk's Kay  Key West 

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St. Augustine - Birthplace of America

Posted By Sheila O'Connor, Monday, January 1, 2007
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Oldest Settlement

Like most of us, you probably thought that Jamestown was the oldest city in America. But like most of us, you’d be wrong. The honor of America’s oldest continuously occupied European settlement actually goes to St. Augustine in Florida. And the nation’s oldest city was founded in 1565, a lengthy 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown. The city belonged to the Spanish in those early days, and everywhere you turn here, you’ll be reminded of the significance of this city to the history of the United States.

The state of Florida itself was discovered by Ponce de Leon who claimed the territory for Spain and the Catholic Church in 1513. The name La Florida means "land of flowers”. But the English were not far behind and Sir Francis Drake was the first British visitor. He saw a lighthouse and came ashore then promptly burned the city to the ground.

The city of St. Augustine was discovered by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. These days the influence of all countries who have claimed the town can be felt. "The whole town has a European flavor” says gallery owner Jan Miller who owns Butterfield Garage gallery. And you can see this almost everywhere you walk. History is waiting around every corner, it seems. And walking is one of the best ways to discover this history. The city gained kudos in 2006 as one of the top 10 most walkable cities in the nation.

Castillo de San Marcos

One of the best places to start that walk is at the Castillo de San Marcos, a National Monument that has been standing as sentinel over the city since 1672, a fact that makes it the oldest masonry fort in the US, as well as America’s oldest man-made monument. It took 21 years to finish the walls that are made of coquina, a porous material made of tiny seashells quarried from Anastasia Island across the water. The fort was commissioned by Spain’s Queen Regent Mariana who realized that St. Augustine was critical to the defense of the Florida coast, which at the time was getting attacked by pirates and other enemies.

History tells us that whoever controls the fort holds the key to all of Florida. Although originally built by the Spanish, the fort has been taken over in turn by the British, Spanish and Americans until it was finally declared a National Monument in 1924.

If you’re lucky, you can catch soldiers in period costume fire the cannon. It’s quite a sight. The blue and red uniforms made from wool might make you think the poor volunteer soldiers are sweating buckets, but their undergarments are made to allow the condensation that forms to keep them cool.

Hotel Ponce de Leon

No doubt one of the places where guests were kept cool was at the beautiful and grand Hotel Ponce de Leon, built in the Spanish Renaissance style. The building is now the Flagler College. In the days when the building was a hotel, guests had to stay for the whole season and pay the princely sum of $30/day, all in cash. Al Capone was even said to be a frequent visitor here.

Thomas Edison was the reason the hotel/college had lights in its day. These days, in the dining room, you can find outstanding glasswork by Louis Comfort Tiffany, valued at $35 million. With all this history and artwork, the students should be inspired to greatness!

Henry Flagler himself was a farmer and at age 14 he joined his brother’s general store where he saved his money and invested in grain, then salt and then grain again. He later met Rockerfeller and they started Standard Oil. He came to St. Augustine on his honeymoon and fell in love with the area. He built a Methodist church and in those days churches came with land. Flagler asked for the land (the church wasn’t using it) and they gave it to him. He then did the same for the Baptist church but they asked him not to build a bell tower which he agreed not to do. Flagler wanted to turn St. Augustine into a winter home for the rich and in many ways this is what he did.

But tragedy was to hit the family. Flagler’s daughter died giving birth to his granddaughter, and Flagler built a church in her memory. This is the beautiful Presbyterian Church, plain and comfortable inside but with a Venetian Renaissance style outside. This splendid church was built in a few days less than a year (361 days) with the labor of 1000 workers, all working 12 hour shifts. The work never stopped. It’s the only church of its kind in America and is now Flagler’s burial place.

Lightner Museum

Across the street from the college, you’ll see the Lightner Museum, originally Flagler’s second hotel--the Alcazar Hotel. This acted as an entertainment area for Flagler’s Ponce de Leon hotel guests-- after all they stayed for months and had to have something to do! Lightner later bought it in 1946, during the Depression, and it now houses brilliant cut glass, antique furnishings, period costumes, mechanical musical instruments and many of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass works. The impressive collections document American life during the Victorian Age and early 20th century. These days, this is the equivalent of Florida’s Smithsonian Museum.

And when those visiting guests got unruly, Henry Flagler knew exactly where to put them. He built the town’s Old Jail in 1891 and this actually served as a real jail until 1953. It was finally placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1987.

But if you’d rather see homes instead of jails, check out the period houses at the Old St. Augustine Village, a city block that is the location of 9 houses, all different and all nestled among courtyards and gardens. The owner, Kenneth W. Dow, bought one house for his collection of artworks, furniture and antiques gathered from his travels around the world, but soon ran out of space and bought another house. This went on for some time until he had squired a substantial collection of houses—9 in all—to go along with his substantial collection of artifacts. History doesn’t record what his wife thought of all this "stuff!”

Historic Living

This particular city block wasn’t wanted by St. Augustine and it is actually now owned by the city of Daytona Beach. The historic homes span from 1790 to 1910 and one even belonged to the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Prince Achille Murat, who resided here before moving to Tallahassee.

Another house worth visiting is the Ximinez Fatio House, one of the original B&Bs in the town. Like most houses of its day, the kitchen is situated away from the house. This prevented the house being destroyed should the kitchen catch fire and helped keep extra heat out of the main building. Air conditioning did not exist and the heat would have been oppressive.

But oppressive heat or not, movie producers and directors always recognize a good thing when they see it And they saw it in the historic Aviles Street which has recently been used in the movie, The Celestine Prophecy. Dating back to 1572—35 years before the advent of Jamestown—this is one of the oldest streets in America and is typical of a Spanish street, just what the movie directors wanted.

Of course the oldest town is a fitting place for the Oldest House. "The Oldest House and complex gives a representation of how people lived from 1723 thought he Revolutionary War to the present day”, says Lynn Lesioka, a docent at the Oldest House, also known as the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, after the families that lived there. This is the oldest surviving Spanish Colonial dwelling in Florida. Check out how small the house was with only 3 rooms. Originally two rooms and one story high, the structure was changed when the British occupied it and added a second floor. The present house dates back to the early 1700s and these days it also houses the Museum of Florida’s Military and the Florida history Museum.

From the oldest house, be sure to check out the Oldest Schoolhouse as well. Built before 1763, with wooden pegs and handmade nails, this school stands just as it did over two centuries ago. Check out the roll call for the last class ever to attend. There’s even a photograph of those pupils with their descendents. Compare your elementary school experience and you’ll see that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all!

Do you know, for instance, what the children had to use instead of money to pay the teacher? Not only did children have to learn their lessons, they had to bring coal and food for the teacher as well. Bartering in exchange for lessons was often the order of the day. If you got this right, go to the top of the class!

The city of St. Augustine is also famous for its spring, known as the Fountain of Youth. The water was originally used by Native Americans and later Ponce de Leon in 1513. Here you can stroll the gardens, explore the excavations, see the life-sized exhibits and planetarium and drink from the prehistoric India Spring that Ponce de Leon hoped was the elixir of life. Check out the Navigator’s Celestial Planetarium showing how sailors of yesteryear navigated with the stars. The sky is shown on the exact day Ponce de Leon made his landmark discovery of North America. It is still operated by hand. There’s also a native Indian burial site on the premises which came as a surprise to the Smithsonian Institute team who discovered it.

Olde World Shopping

But if all this history makes you just want to switch off and spend half a day shopping, then you can do that too. Fantastic shopping opportunities are everywhere, particularly in the charming shops along ancient St. George Street. There it’s pedestrian traffic only among the hundreds of shops and boutiques that meet just about every need and desire.

And you just might run into bookstores in this city where the most well-known and well-loved author was Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Yearling. Among the guests in her modest but lovely home, now open to the public, were Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, A.J. Cronin and Dylan Thomas.

Exotic Wildlife

And when it comes to discoveries, one you’ll be glad you found is the Alligator Farm. Opened in 1893, this houses all 23 known species of crocodilian, plus exotic birds, monkey and giant tortoise. The farm celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1993.

"Crocodile tears are tears that are not real”, says a docent leading a school group around. "The expression came from the ancient belief that crocodiles shed tears while eating their victims.” The school group suddenly stops in its tracks, in awe of an albino crocodile. "It’s also said that those who gaze upon these beautiful albino reptiles will receive good fortune,” smiles the docent. And several school kids nod in agreement, or is it in hope?

Near the Alligator Farm is Marineland - a great place to watch and even feed dolphins, a creature humans feel much more inclined to interact with. Watch them play and frolic with their trainers. The center is used for marine scientific and dolphin research and if you always fancied swimming with dolphins, then this is your chance. You get to swim and play with the dolphins in their 450,000 gallon rectangular oceanarium in a program that’s normally reserved only for the staff members who work with them. Check it out.

More Colonial Icons

Another "must-see” in town is Florida’s first and still-working Lighthouse, built in 1824. St. Augustine’s oldest surviving brick structure is also its only "high-rise” building. It’s well worth a walk up the 219 stairs (equivalent to a fourteen story building) for the view at the top. The St. Augustine Lighthouse is one of 30 lighthouses still standing in Florida, and one of only six open to the public.

Also open to the public is the living history museum at the Colonial Spanish Quarter. Here the life of Spanish soldiers and their families is depicted in 1740. You’ll see how craftspeople like the calligrapher, the blacksmith, carpenter and leather worker went about their business. When you stroll through this area, you’ll also see how families gardened and prepared food.

But St. Augustine isn’t just all about history. It has its share of romance too. Want to snuggle up in a cozy B&B? Then check out Casa de Solana which dates back to 1821 and which you’ll find on historic Aviles Street. Each room is different and the lodging is surrounded by a walled courtyard. This inn promises an "oasis of comfort” and without a doubt, this is what you’ll find here. You’ll enjoy a whirlpool tub and open fireplace just to set the scene.

St. Augustine is not only the oldest city in America, it’s one of the nation’s most romantic and charismatic as well. It’s a "must-see” on every traveler’s list.

Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Sheila O'Connor.

Sheila O’Connor is a freelance travel writer who lives in San Francisco. Although Sheila has traveled all over the world, she says there is nowhere quite like home—San Francisco.

Tags:  Castillo de San Marco  Florida  Hotel Ponce de Leon  St. Augustine 

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