Authors whose books provide a "virtual visit" to the Florida Keys range from contemporary masters to Ernest Hemingway, whose Key West study is shown here. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)
- By: Carol Shaughnessy
- May 6, 2020
Many books about the Florida Keys, whether fiction or nonfiction, are so well crafted that they seemingly transport readers right to the island chain — portraying it so vividly that you can practically feel the humidity and smell the salt air.
During this time of COVID-19 travel restrictions, physically traveling to the Keys isn’t possible. So which books provide the best “virtual visit”?
If you’re a mystery lover, you can immerse yourself in the island chain through a wide variety of offerings. They range from the delicious “Key West food critic” series by Lucy Burdette (the pen name of a Key Wester) to the wacky Key Largo-based “Native Tongue” by famed journalist Carl Hiaasen (who, BTW, is a former Upper Keys resident).
Must-read volumes for Keys lovers include the haunting Bone Island trilogy by New York Times bestselling author Heather Graham, featuring an affectionate and enticing portrait of contemporary Key West (plus a ghostly privateer with a wicked sense of humor).
And don’t miss Graham’s riveting “The Vision,” set against a shipwreck salvage expedition in nearby waters.
Foodies can get a taste of the Keys’ most iconic dish in “The Key West Key Lime Pie Cookbook” by David Sloan. Longtime resident Sloan explores the signature pie’s history — including its links to sponge fishermen and Key West’s “Aunt Sally,” both credited with dreaming up the dessert — while also providing a glimpse of the island’s early days.
Alongside little-known tidbits and tips, the book contains recipes for 20 crusts, 20 fillings, 20 sauces and 20 toppings that can be mixed and matched to create nearly infinite variations on the delectable treat.
Among the recipes are truly quirky concoctions like Key lime pies incorporating bacon and jalapeno peppers (we are not making this up).
The wildly prolific Sloan is also the author of volumes that include “The Florida Keys Bucket List,” outlining a wealth of must-do activities throughout the island chain, and “Robert the Doll,” tracing the history of a haunted toy and the Key West artist who had a lifelong obsession with it.
Sloan partnered with Upper Keys author Brad Bertelli to pen “A Local’s Guide to Bloodline,” showcasing the Upper Keys locations that appeared in the hit Netflix series about the dysfunctional Rayburn family. Fans of the series will discover spots from the Rayburn mansion (hint: it’s part of an iconic Islamorada inn property) to the site of Danny Rayburn’s murder.
Bertelli, who’s also a historian and curator of the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center, paired with fellow Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson to compile fascinating visual histories of two Upper Keys regions. Titled “Islamorada” and “Key Largo,” the books blend archival photos and vignettes offering insights into long-ago island life.
One of the best immersions into the Keys’ remarkable heritage can be found in “Last Train to Paradise” by acclaimed novelist Les Standiford. The gripping true story chronicles the creation of Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad — once dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” — as well as its heyday and eventual destruction.
While many other books too can provide satisfying “virtual visits” to Keys locales (including Mary Stella’s terrific “All Keyed Up” and Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not”), no listing would be complete without the mysteries of Tom Corcoran.
Corcoran debuted his Key West series in 1998 with “The Mango Opera,” which portrays the island with rueful affection and bone-deep accuracy. He has followed it with several other volumes, including 2018’s “Guava Moon Revenge” — all detailing the adventures of freelance photographer Alex Rutledge.
A Key West resident in the 1970s, Corcoran has been a photographer, disc jockey and close friend of the island’s renowned “pirate laureate,” singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett. His books draw on his memories as well as the southernmost city’s modern-day flavors. The people Alex meets, befriends (and occasionally suspects of crimes) are inspired by the intriguing individuals that walk the streets today.
Most of the offerings described here can be downloaded from local libraries or e-book outlets, or ordered from authors’ websites or favorite bookstores for quick delivery. And through their pages, you can enjoy an entertaining sojourn in the Florida Keys — without leaving the comfort of your home.