Summer in Key West is not for the faint of heart. Unless you were born and raised on tropical summers, nothing much prepares you for that after-dark moment when you leave the house to walk the dog. Oh, you acclimate eventually, but I suspect for most of us, we look at summer pretty much the way snow-belt mainlanders look at winter: tolerable; definitely not nice.
Which makes me wonder about the newcomers and visitors who’ve discovered Key West this summer. Since vacationing here is more convenient — if outrageously more expensive — than jumping through the Covid-19 hoops of out-of-country and no cruise ship travels, the island’s usually slow summer season is setting all kinds of records. Ninety-two percent hotel occupancy. Room rates hovering at $400 a night — plus. Long lines and no reservations to be had. Summer 2021 is recharging pocketbooks and bank accounts in Key West and up the Keys.
The question is will the newcomers and visitors return?
If I were the Tourist Development Council, the city, chamber or guild (none of which I ever am on Saturdays), I’d be out there on the streets asking this summer’s visitors just that question. Maybe they already are because knowing the answers would help figure out — if this is the new normal for summer — how we’re going to accommodate such busyness when this is supposed to be our downtime. Heaven forbid how we’d manage the next late summer hurricane with all these people needing to be fed, housed and entertained. (Yeah, I know. They’re supposed to be the first mandatory evacuation. Good luck with that.)
I gotta tell you. I feel downright sorry for Key West’s summer visitors from parts northward on the mainland, which is pretty much everyone in town at the moment. You can spot them a block away. Shoulders drooping, sunscreen dripping into sun-stunned eyes, hair sweaty, clothes sticking to places clothes aren’t supposed to stick. Bedraggled toddlers and teenagers not the slightest bit cheerful at tromping down Duval, even when the grownups are making the best of a disheveled day.
Key West summers look great in snapshots. All that green and blue and clear water and beaches and bright sunshine with deep shadows. Just thinking about it makes me smile. And, then I remember last Thursday’s mid-day walk though my neighborhood. Thursday is trash day and though the truck was a block over, the smells wafting from those just emptied green cans was swoon-worthy. We should grant hazard pay for the Waste Management folks who heft our summer trash.
There’s not a marketing campaign in the world willing to tell newcomers about summer in Key West. Instead, it goes something like this: It’s no hotter on the island than it is “back home.” True. In fact, Key West is often significantly cooler than, say, Illinois. We get humidity back home. Sure. Except back home the wet blanket percentage is, say, 51 percent; it might be 67 percent on a bad day. Here, the average is 82 percent at 7 a.m., and 69 percent at 1 p.m.
What really does in newcomers is that it’s as hot and humid at midnight as it is at noon. Not for a tropical island is the sweater weather of summer evenings in Chicago. Or Atlanta, for that matter. We do have those island breezes, but a breeze doesn’t help much when it’s so humid the sweat doesn’t evaporate — which is most days between July and October.
I love tropical summers; was raised in southeastern North Carolina practically in the middle of a swamp.
Here’s what I’ve learned, which might help newcomers and visitors cope:
- Among sargassum, the aforementioned fermenting garbage cans and regurgitated beer in the gutters, there’s just no way to get around it. The island stinks. Summer means getting out the hose and detergent to clean the garbage cans — and the yard waste ones, while you’re at it. Have you sniffed a sniffed a yard waste can with rotting mangoes or iguana poop? I hate cleaning those cans. But it’s the least I can do for those guys on the garbage truck and my neighbors. The city does a good job cleaning the downtown streets, but it’s impossible to rinse away the summer stench.
- Wear long, loose shirts, pants or dresses and a big-brimmed hat. Carry a parasol for when there’s no shade. Sound counterproductive? Ought one not be shedding clothes when it’s hot? Nah. Best to protect from the relentless sun.
- Water. Sorry. Water, not alcohol. Or at least equal amounts of water and alcohol. Dehydration is a thing.
- Slow down. We ought to return to siestas. Close down everything from 2-4 p.m.
- Oh, and have the air conditioning repair phone number handy.