Early in my 35-year sojourn in the Florida Keys, I took a front-line hospitality-industry job that put me in daily contact with visitors to the island chain.
I enjoyed a lot of things about the work — meeting people from all over the world, glimpsing my beloved home through others’ eyes, knowing that each day would bring an ever-changing tapestry of diverse people and viewpoints.
But there were two things I liked above all else.
One, admittedly, is a bit weird: saying goodbye to people. Watching them depart for homes in the “real world,” which I defined as any mundane locale that didn’t offer the Keys’ quirky experiential richness, I invariably felt sorry for them and gloried in the fact that I didn’t EVER have to leave.
The other is the crazy questions I got asked. Of course most guests were savvy, interesting people who clearly did their “homework” about the Keys before arrival. But a few had either left their common sense at home or enjoyed enough tropical cocktails to make them a little hazy on geography and the laws of nature.
For example, a sweet white-haired woman once asked, in all seriousness, “How many times a day does the sun set down here?”
The Keys are known around the world for their incredible Technicolor sunsets. You can savor the spectacle from spots including waterfront cocktail emporiums, tall ships or catamarans offering evening cruises, or the nightly carnival-like sunset celebration at Key West’s Mallory Square, where people flock to see artisans and street performers. But trust me — no matter how terrific it is, sunset only takes place once a day.
Another unforgettable visitor, a rabid Miami Dolphins fan, apparently hoped to interact with his favorite players during his Key Largo vacation.
“When I go to one of those ‘Swim with the Dolphins’ places, is that the football team or the Flipper-like dolphins?” he inquired.
Football fans weren’t the only sporting aficionados to ask unusual questions. For many years a nationally acclaimed offshore powerboat race was held in Marathon. The boats navigated a high-speed course that took them under the Middle Keys’ Old Seven Mile Bridge and its modern-day counterpart.
For one prospective spectator, my description of the route under the parallel bridges just wasn’t detailed enough.
“That’s great,” he said enthusiastically. “So you mean the offshore powerboats race in the water?”
Ummmm … yeah. In the water.
The landmark Seven Mile Bridge, an engineering marvel that gives drivers the sensation they’re floating over water, also drew a lot of questions about its length. Strangely enough, the answer is trickier than it might seem. Although the span is believed to be the longest segmental bridge in the world, its name is a slight exaggeration. Actually, it stretches 6.79 miles.
Tentative phone inquiries from some potential visitors reflected the Florida Keys’ reputation as an exotic subtropical island.
Almost every day, someone queried, “Do I need a passport to get into the Keys?”
No, you don’t — not unless you need one to get into the rest of America. Despite the fact that the Keys symbolically seceded from the United States in 1982, protesting a Border Patrol blockade set up by over-zealous federales, the island chain is still technically part of the U.S.
Then there was the guy who wondered if it was possible to see Cuba from the top floor of the Keys’ tallest building. But while a certain former governor famously claimed she could see Russia from Alaska, Cuba lies 90 miles from Key West at the closest point — so the answer remains a resounding “no.”
My favorite question of all time was a staggeringly simple one. It came from a brand-new arrival so eager to start soaking up rays that she was rubbing suntan lotion on her arms as she checked into her hotel.
“Tell me,” she asked breathlessly, “is the beach near the ocean?”