Every daydream I ever had about living in Key West involved a crystal clear swimming pool framed with swaying palm trees and waves lapping in a sailboat-draped cove just a few sandy footsteps away. When I finally got an assignment to write about the Florida Keys for a month, I booked a charming, white-balconied conch cottage on the grounds of a former cigar factory. A gecko welcomed me that first day, then scampered across my back porch and up an enormous tree laden with avocados as big as coconuts. I plucked a juicy, colorful mango, and found a shady spot with a rocking chair. It was everything I ever dreamed of — but there was no swimming pool. The eventual solution to that dilemma is what transformed my travel writing forever. And it began with one simple question: Where do the locals swim?
Let’s acknowledge right off the bat that writing travel content these days is much more likely to involve a computer and a Google search than a mojito at sunset in the literary backyard of Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. But that’s no excuse to be lazy and pilfer from the regurgitated “top 10” lists of every major publication (ones that I myself have written many times.) It’s a good place to start, but it’s only the trailhead – and the local treasures lie in which paths you choose to explore, whether virtual or boots-on-the-ground tromping.
Keywords Are Truly Your Keys
While seeking an accessible swimming pool for my month in Key West, I discovered that “thinking like a local” is easy when you broaden your keyword searches. For example, instead of searching online for “swimming pools in Key West,” adding one simple word unlocked the door to the “real” Key West: public swimming pools in Key West, or swimming classes in Key West. By using this keyword expansion, I found the pool of my dreams, free to use and open every day, with those swaying palm trees just steps from the sandy beach. There were no tourists and no crowds — and better yet, I joined a water aerobics class with local ladies, from which I discovered unannounced nooks and crannies, was welcomed into the homes of fabulous island artists and writers, got invited to “locals only” restaurant nights, and scored a private interview with the upcoming King of the infamous Fantasty Fest. The takeaway here is: go where the locals are.
Spy With Maps
Even when writing about a destination from miles away, interesting local spots pop up when using an online mapping service such as Google Maps. Start by typing in a known tourist destination, and then expand to an overview of the area. This often reveals things that are not routine tourist recommendations. For example, using a mapping service to locate the notorious Duvall Street in Key West is a given – but expanding the view to include side streets opens up the eclectic, multicultural neighborhood of Bahama Village. This is where generations of migrants from Haiti and Cuba share a life filled with spicy cuisine, eclectic music,publicart and the annual Goombay Festival with street dancing, Caribbean delicacies sizzling in pots at roadside stands, and island music drifting through the evening breezes. Bahama Village is also home to the Blue Heaven café,whereshooing away roosters while you eat is commonplace, and stories abound of the onsite boxing rink where Hemingway himself was known to throw a few punches.
Look for One-Liners
When reading about the main destination attractions, keep your eyes peeled for one-liners that lead to stories untold. Using Key West as an example again, everyone writes about the main waterfront activities. While perusing the usual suggestions for watching the sunset from Mallory Square or hopping aboard a booze-cruise sailing expedition, expand your search to something like “local beaches.” Read a few reviews for Higgs Beach, and keep your radar on for passing mentions of things like a slave-ship graveyard. What?
Further research unveils a fascinating story of the U.S. Coast Guard intercepting a slave ship on its way to Cuba and bringing the slaves to the as-yet undeveloped island of Key West, where they were eventually buried a mere 2 to 3 feet beneath the sand. Following additional links reveals the existence of the country’s largest AIDS memorial and, just steps away, an ancient fort that now harbors elaborate gardens hosting indigenous island plants and flowers – open and free to the public every day.
Read What the Locals Read
Some of the quickest ways to unlock stories about a destination is by reading local newspapers, visiting art gallery websites, or finding regional bands. Local bands and artists are likely performing at the clubs, cafes or galleries where the city’s organic culture thrives, whether indie music, local cuisine or folk art that’s missing from the larger, promoted tourist venues.
5-Star writer Wendy L specializes in travel journalism, spending at least 6 months of every year “on the road,” but also invests heavily in her career as a content specialist for dozens of online companies, projects and websites.
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