The Reality of Island Living

“I live where you vacation”

            I grew up in the Florida Keys. It’s a lot more glamorous for tourists than it is for locals, but I do recognize my rare viewpoint as someone who “grew up on an island.” It wasn’t really until my last two weeks of high school when I was driving over a bridge to the next key that I realized the uniqueness of my location. I grew up believing I lived on a rock with little to offer other than palm trees, and I guess having disdain for your hometown is a package deal with teen angst, but I wish I could’ve look at my town with the same love I have for it currently. After 5 years of living in Tallahassee where everything is mostly trees, I really started to miss hearing the ocean everywhere I was if I just listened carefully enough. Even with my newfound appreciation for the rock, there’s a few things that aren’t as easy to romanticize as the sound of the ocean…and a few other things that are just annoying, but mainlanders don’t have to think twice about it and that’s personally upsetting.

You don’t take a boat everywhere

Despite the aesthetic, this isn’t possible, let alone something normal. I mean, I GUESS you could, but it seems like it would be more effort than it’s worth when you could just drive wherever you wanted to go. Every building has a parking lot, but not every building has a dock. Upon leaving the Keys to attend FSU, I was often faced with this question: did you have to take a boat to get to get to school. No. No I did not. Nobody did. The school does not have a dock. You can drive your boat to anywhere that has a dock, which will limit you to the number of restaurants willing to let you use their dock. I’ve been to two restaurants while using this feature. It’s easier to drive, and in some cases walk. While this form of transportation is aesthetic, I’m afraid your main mode of transportation will be a car.

A pug driving a boat
I would trust this pug with my life.

Tourist season Never Ends

I used to be someone who said, “I can’t wait until tourist season ends.” Then I realized that tourist season had become year-round instead of just around major holidays and summertime. Now, there are days that have some traffic, and days that have a lot of traffic. It’s not so disruptive when you’re on vacation, I presume, but I agree that randomly getting to work late because your commute time suddenly doubled isn’t fun. There’s also a consistent sunblock smell in certain tourist traps that just always lingers. By the way, when you visit, would you mind not using spray bottles of sunblock? It’s bad for the reefs.

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If anything indicates there are more tourists in town than usual, it is the amount of car accidents. I’m not sure how you mess up driving in a straight line, but I’m begging you to please be careful when you visit. I understand looking away from the road for a second because you want to take in the ocean around you on the 7 Mile Bridge, but you need to pay the most attention and patience there. It’s not all sunshine and dolphins out there, but just pay your due diligence and be a good driver for all of us.

Overpriced gift shops galore

We don’t have malls. We don’t really have stores either. There’re a few boutiques, but they also house overpriced clothes. Perfect when you’re shopping on vacation, I guess, but before 2-day shipping was a thing, my family always had to drive to the mainland to get any non-essential items. At least on my island, Key Largo, I didn’t really have access to a lot of stores except Kmart when it was there.

I was so accustomed to going to Kmart for everything when I was a teenager that when I learned there wasn’t a Kmart where I was going to college, I had a conniption. I kept blinking and stuttering in some twisted form of culture shock, asking my roommate “W-w-where am I supposed to go to buy things if there’s no Kmart?!” The answer is, literally anywhere else.

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 I guess growing up here does leave you in a hard spot both on and under a rock. That local discount though…if a restaurant or store has a local discount, you bet I will be there using those services and getting that 10% discount. It’s only 10% sure, but it’s less than what nonlocals are paying, and it’s enough to get me there.

You give tours and sell tchotchkes in the gift shop.

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You won’t do ‘island activities’ every day

If you somehow manage to always go fishing, or just go on the boat, or get on a kayak without a second thought every day…how? When I was growing up in the Keys, I didn’t live on a canal, so I didn’t have immediate access to the water. The kids I was friends with had the same barrier. What did we do? We walked to the back of my neighborhood to the boat ramp, sat on the bench, and stared at the water. If you don’t have feasible access to the activities, it will be harder to do them. Major respect to anyone with a waterfront property and their own boat, kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, etc, but I don’t think even they partake in the island lifestyle every day.

People who live on houseboats are the exception to this rule, and I’m quite jealous of them because they can just jump outside into the ocean whenever they want to! It’s right there! One step out of your front door, boom, you’re swimming. I want to live that kind of life. Let me add that to my list real quick, maybe I can indeed become an everyday island life kind of gal.

A boy and girl holding hands, jumping into ocean water.

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It’s a little lonely

Islands come with a small amount of surface area, meaning an island will only have so many inhabitants. Teenage me grew up desperately reaching for the chance to move to another city and make friends with people there. Mid-twenties me is very confused how she ended up being closer friends to people she knew in high school than people she knew in college. Mid-twenties me also can’t believe she ended up with the one guy in her hometown she didn’t meet in school. The thing is, the last time I moved back home and before I met my person, I suddenly felt that loneliness return. It certainly didn’t help that the COVID-19 pandemic was in full bloom. It’s hard to meet other people if there’s not a lot of people to meet, so being a loner here can grow on you quickly. I think even the most social and extroverted of people have trouble making friends when they move here on their own, especially with the housing market of the Keys being what it is, (Lowest rent is $3k) I don’t think there’s going to be much more room for new people in the mix.