As we begin to approach hurricane season, my thoughts turn again to Key West. In 2017 the Conch Republic was hammered hard by Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria wasn't far behind. Last fall my heart hurt for Key West, as cruise lines scrambled to redirect passengers around the catastrophic storms. Key West is a place that will always be special to me and I always hate to see the people of the Caribbean and the Florida Keys suffer.
I've been to Key West three times, and I'd go back in a heartbeat. My family and I visited the island in December of 2016 on our first cruise together and had a wonderful day there. In fact, we loved it so much, we'd be happy to include it as a port of call on any future cruise.
The first time I visited the Key West, I was a crew member living and working on board the Disney Wonder cruise ship. The ship was brand new at the time; when I boarded as a beverage server in October of 1999, twenty three years old and more than ready to embark on my first real adventure away from home, the ship still had the smell of fresh paint and plaster and carpet. She was only a few months old and the second vessel of two in the Disney fleet.
My flight to Orlando to board the ship was my first ever, and as a crew member I traveled a twice weekly repetitive loop from Port Canaveral to Nassau, to Disney's private island before heading back to the port of origin. We did this route in three or four day routes, alternating with a day at sea every second cruise. We had no days off.
Days and evenings I spent working in the various bars and nightclubs on board, while I spent the evenings drinking in the crew bar for two dollars a drink. Whether the drink was a can of beer or a cardboard Disney coffee mug filled with Irish cream, the price remained the same and the pour generous.
I boarded the ship during the start of hurricane season, and missed the coveted opportunity to travel with my fellow crew members to Cozumel by just a cruise or two. At the time, the ship rarely, if ever, diverted from its regular itinerary in that circle around and through Nassau. Understandably, the ship's crew tired of seeing the same places every few days and relished the chance to port somewhere new.
On one particular cruise, the weather was too unstable for the ship to port in our regular Nassau. The guests were furious. The crew were jubilant. Somewhere new! Somewhere we hadn't been before!
I made a deal with another beverage server to have my shift on deck that afternoon covered, and lined up with my friends to disembark the ship and explore the new territory. We'd start with food, of course.
I stood in line to disembark with the others, the throng of crew members pushing toward the exit. By then I'd befriended a number of comedians working in the improv club on board and was my Aussie friend Lisa and I were happy to spend the day in their presence laughing.
We hit the first place we found that had a breakfast menu. Mimosas and French toast at the Rooftop Café. We had a photo taken on stage at the historic Sloppy Joe's bar down Duval Street, an obligatory margarita in hand. We took a trolley tour of the island with a quick hop off (or two) to refuel with another margarita and a piece of key lime pie on a stick. We hit all of the bases and reveled in every moment of our time there before heading back on board.
For a crew member, that day in Key West was perfect.
As the people Key West work to recover from the devastating impact of storms like Irma and Maria, I'll be thinking of them and my memorable visits. I look forward to the day we can return and support the islanders there.