Keys to Contentment
Our brief sojourn in South Florida had been a trip of firsts:
Julia's first time in Florida, and for that matter the entire Southeastern US
My first time in Florida in over a decade
My first time in Miami proper, Marco Island, and the Gulf of Mexico
Our first "major" trip together
First time riding in/driving a Mustang
We rose on Day 3 to a sulky sky. It had been in a perfect mood for the the first two days, so we were due for some heather, weren't we? Having realized we'd forgotten beach towels, a stop at Target was in the cards before making the two-hour drive south into the Keys for an experience that would be yet another first for both of us.
I’d heard copious praise for this uber-unique protrusion of islands, connected by the peerless Florida Keys Scenic Highway, a.k.a. Route 1. We were bound for the acclaimed Dolphin Research Center (DRC) on Grassy Key, about halfway between Keys Largo and West, the end of the road and of the United States.
This astounding byway had first been built in 1938 and expanded since. In October 2009 it was designated an All-American Road, the most prestigious title a highway can receive. It remained the only one in Florida until A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway joined it in early 2021.
My first impressions of the route were of sprawling souvenir shops, gas stations, and brake lights. Between multiple stops and traffic, our door-to-door travel time was closer to four hours. Any frustration with delays, however, was mitigated by the fact that clouds had broken, and we were in a convertible in the Florida Keys. In March. Together.
Just when my ‘meh’ impressions were starting to take hold, we hit the first bridge – one of 42 – and looked out upon the most gorgeous-colored water I’ve seen in my life. We crossed the watery gap between keys, and simultaneously the gap between an average road and a drive I’d never forget. I'd never been so happy to have the blues. Azure, teal, turquoise, aquamarine - spread out on both sides like an nautical daydream.
Excitement began to surface like the dolphins we were about to meet. Entering the Dolphin Research Center, one is enveloped in an oasis of tropical foliage and tableaux of sublime teal. I tried to soak in every moment of wandering these magnificent grounds, 75-degree breezes on our skin. A pair of roosters - whom Julia named Hernando and Ferdinando - strutted aimlessly about, looking for a handout when we dined at the nearby food cart.
Then, you hear the screeching. Not angry or distressed screeching, mind you, but the jubilant exclamations of the smiling marine mammals that are inviting you in to their watery homes. They're thrilled just to be alive.
Before visiting, I knew dolphins were intelligent creatures, but seeing them respond to the instructors confirmed this 100%. It would be one thing if they were "book smart" automatons, but their elation to be gliding through a calm lagoon was absolutely contagious. I dare anyone to enter this place, no matter his mood, and come away unmoved. I couldn't wipe the goofy smile off my face.
After a group demonstration, it was time for Julia's dockside experience. A chilled out trainer named Adam introduced himself and led us to a back lagoon where Julia was taught to be a trainer herself. She learned various signals that the dolphins followed beautifully. We hadn't known beforehand that she'd be one-on-one with the dolphins, which was a spectacular surprise.
Finally, it was time for Reese and Gambit, the pair she'd been training, to create a painting for her. Adam dipped a brush in purple and teal, the colors she'd chosen upon our arrival, and the dolphins spun and twirled like ballerinas, decorating the canvas that would surely have a prominent place in our home when we returned.
Seeing Julia's joy and knowing she'd hold these moment with her for years if not decades was incalculable.
On our return to Miami, we stopped off at Snappers, a down-to-earth yet tasty restaurant on Key Largo. We were led to a dockside table with sweeping views of a cozy harbor and the grand sea beyond. Palm trees swayed gently as we enjoyed a phenomenal dinner and the best companionship a father could ever ask for. I had conch chowder and salad while she went with the classic fettuccine alfredo. Dessert was Key Lime pie, amazingly the first time I'd ever had it. What better place, right?
While it was the coolest of our three days in Florida, I still dined outdoors comfortably in a short-sleeved golf shirt, shorts, and flip flops. Golly, this was the life. We put the top down one last time and headed north to Miami. I contemplated that, other than my Peru trip, this was the farthest south I'd ever been in my life.
The evening's sunset was less in-your-face gorgeous than the one on Marco Island, but more of a mellow amber glow. It was the end of a day, a trip, and perhaps an era. As the engine's growl echoed beneath each underpass, I looked in the rearview to see Julia's hair and arms moving wildly during our last open-air ride. She was grooving unreservedly to some dance music on the radio, and enjoying every moment. Just being a kid.
My smile was tinged with melancholy as I knew this moment, this era, wouldn't last. At its own unhurried pace, the sky dissolved into darkness. Now it was my turn to let go. Our winter Florida fantasy was over, but tomorrow would be a new day. With a willingness to seek and embrace the value in each of life's many chapters, it might even be as beautiful as today. With or without palm trees.