POSTCARDS FROM FLORIDA
By air, getting to the Dry Tortugas is half the fun
Fort Jefferson, a six-sided fort situated in the Dry Tortugas National Park, Fla., 68 miles west of Key West, seen in this picture shot Thursday, July 1, 2004. Nicknamed "Gibraltor of the Gulf of Mexico," the 150-year-old fort was never fully completed and never fired upon. During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson served as a Union military prison whose most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted of complicity in Abraham Lincoln's assassination. (Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)
While that's an exaggeration, there aren't many options for reaching Dry Tortugas National Park, which encompasses seven tiny islands about 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.
Or, as I did, you can now book air transportation from Key West to the utterly remote national park at Key West Seaplane Adventures (keywestseaplanecharters.com).
No one would confuse these 10-passenger propeller planes with a commercial jet, but on the tarmac at Key West International Airport there was at least one vague similarity: Our departure was delayed 40 minutes to replace a bad switch.
Leaning against one of the massive pontoons, I watched the crew make repairs and soon was seated in my window seat (to be fair, all the seats were window seats) right behind the pilot. To be truthful, it was as entertaining to watch him flying the plane as it was to check out the scenery.
It's a no-frills 40-minute flight, with the heavy-duty headphones a necessity to soften the loud engine noise. Air conditioning? Adjust the tiny circular vent in your window pane. I've never been inside a crop-duster, but this must be close to what it's like.
The wildlife always seemed to be off to the other side of the aircraft, but there were fantastic views of shipwrecks, including the exposed mast of the Arbutus, a 70-foot vessel tied to treasure hunter Mel Fisher.
On Dry Tortugas, I did inept snorkeling to see the island's coral and colorful undersea life. I took the 40-minute tour of Fort Jefferson, the 19th century outpost that housed Civil War-era prisoners including its most famous one, Dr. Samuel Mudd, charged as a conspirator in President Lincoln's assassination.
I quizzed my tour guide about what it's like to live in such isolation, where roughly a dozen rangers still get water from updated versions of the original cisterns: "Do you get cable? Did you hear about Bin Laden?" Yes (well, satellite) and yes.
For me? It's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.