The Rainbow Cross in Key West is a sign of the liberal ideals of the town, not to mention an idea borrowed from the same symbol in Brighton, UK – Photo: James Renhard

Passing the former home of Ernest Hemingway – now a museum dedicated to him – Chris, my guide from Key Lime Bike Tours, treated me to the tale of why the wall around the property looks like it was put up in one night by the intoxicated author and his equally drunk friends (because it was), and how that specific location was chosen for his house because the glow from the nearby lighthouse would act as a beacon, calling him home when he’d spent too long drinking up inspiration in Sloppy Joe’s.

“Nature’s ugliest animals only come out in the darkness”

As ever in the Keys, the ocean proved magnetic, and that evening saw me heading out after nightfall on a glass bottom kayak at Ibis Bay. Lit from beneath by strips of LED’s, a guide from Key West Paddle took myself and a small group out across the shallow ocean bed. It was a chance to see the sea creatures that come out at night, in their natural environment.

It has been said that nature’s uglier animals only come out in the darkness, and so it was proved, as all manner of crabs, sea slugs, and many other unspeakably alien looking wildlife passed unknowingly beneath my gaze. It felt like a voyage to a different planet, the stillness of the night adding an edge to the sights normally reserved for creatures of the deep. It was as an enchanting experience as any I’d had during my stay.

The Florida Keys are a wonderful, warm, and welcoming place, where nothing ever really feels like a facade, or a show. Key West in particular is a harmonic bubble that, has an innate ability to wrap you up and suck you into its leisurely, happy-go-lucky rhythm.

The ecology and the ocean that surround the Keys, which is at the heart of what a lot of people do, is an adventure playground, rich with experiences ready to be had. Discovery is for sale. Everything can be bought for an entrance fee and a tip.

I went to the Florida Keys to discover something other than a theme park. To get away from the seemingly inevitable pull of Disney. What I found, in a strange way, was a different version of the very thing I was trying to avoid: an unexpected, organic, natural theme park, rich with a cast of larger-than-life characters and fairy tales. And I loved it.