The Key West Mystique

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Living in Key West | Part 2: Coping with grills and termites

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


Crikey! How could I forget the island’s assault on our outdoor grills? But I did, as a dozen barbecuing cooks reminded me in short order.

“Spot on,” said a former Floridian, “but you didn’t even get into the average lifespan of an outdoor grill.”

He wasn’t alone in advising not to spend a mini fortune on an outdoor grill. Those beasts-and-beauts that claim pride of place on your deck up north don’t play well with our sun, sand and water-in-all-forms-except-ice.

You can maybe get three years out of a grill — if you keep it covered, drag it in when it rains and elevate it out of the flood zone. That’s about how long our first one survived. The second one has made it longer because Ranger Ed replaced the rusted out thingies that hold the wheels in place with a couple chunks of wood. We can’t wheel it around anymore, but it still cooks.

This is what I wrote in Part 1 of this “advice to tropical homeowners: Pity, though, the poor mainlanders, fresh from their temperate climes far north. No one tells them as they sign the closing docs on their Key West dream home about the unholy trio of sun, wind and wet with but one mission: Lay waste swiftly to the man-made.”

What else did I miss?



Let’s start with this from my neighbor: “Yes, the yearly, biblical plague-like swarm of flying termites that are drawn to every light source on the island, and will fill your house with flying bugs if you’re unlucky enough to be open-air on the evening they take flight!”

I would add they’ll swarm into the house through every crevice, every hole in the screens, every ill-fitting window or door. When the word SWARM goes out — and it does — there’s only one thing to do. Turn off all the lights inside and around the house; hunker down and pray for them to leave you in peace.

But there’s more. There are dry termites, the kind with which Yankees have some passing familiarity. Up north, one might spot treat occasionally; that’s about it. Down here we have Hammerhead, the termite tenting folks, on speed dial. At least once a decade, I call, get on the waiting list and eventually spend a week prepping and un-prepping for the circus carousel tent over the house.

Then there are the dampwood and subterranean termites. Don’t let anyone tell you those little buggers aren’t in Key West. They most certainly are, happily nibbling the insides of trees and pretty much every wooden support structure in your house. They love wet spaces, make entire condos of mud-like tunnels and require a completely different kind of visit from Hammerhead. We pay annually for subterranean termite insurance.

PS: There are 21 kinds of termites in tropical Florida. At least six of them are invasive. Some cause more destruction faster than others. None is benign. No matter which one visits, they’ll chew through your house in short order left untreated. Ditto your trees. So, you say, you have a concrete block house? They’ll find a wooden stud and make themselves at home.


Coconut palms.

Awwwww. But we love those things, right? Graceful fronds waving in the breeze, the very cliche of island photographs, paintings, fabric and front yards. You can get a real coconut with straw in it down on Duval.

Having a coconut palm in your yard is akin to having a picnic (or whatever) on the beach. Looks great in a photograph or your imagination; a mess in the for real. Residential palm trees require regular trimming and by regular I mean, like monthly. Coconuts have to be removed twice a year or they become killer missiles in the wind. Nor do you want a coconut dropping on your car, your bike or your neighbor.

And, as a friend added: “… plus the bottomless pit of money trimming all the palms.”

The picturesque coconut palms along Roosevelt Boulevard are naked, so to speak. The coconuts get stripped regularly. Pretty sure the city and the state are not inclined to take on lawsuits from falling coconuts. (They should have planted Florida’s native, state tree, the sabal palm, which doesn’t have those huge globes. But the “oh-so-ugly-they-are” outcry won and now we have high-maintenance coconuts.)

I can’t close without mentioning the popular favorite, the iguana. Since I’ve written about iguanas before, let’s leave it at this: The only good iguana is a dead iguana. Now back to finding the last solar panel leak — and killing ants.


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