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Mother and son find common ground in Florida’s Keys

In Hawks Cay, Fla., the authors bypass scuba certification and try snuba. The air comes through tubes from tanks on rafts. In Hawks Cay, Fla., the authors bypass scuba certification and try snuba. The air comes through tubes from tanks on rafts. (Pippin Austin for The Boston Globe)
By Pippin Austin and Nick Williamson
Globe Correspondents / May 9, 2010

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When my nest went empty, I put a wrap on daily, detailed mothering. So, I’m going to blame my son’s pending 21st birthday for the powerful urge I got to be with him for a few days.

I plotted a strategy that I hoped wouldn’t send him running. Like mothers everywhere, I picked up the phone.

Mom: “Before you become an official adult I’m going to give you an order. You are going to spend a few days with me,’’ I say. “Somewhere great. No girlfriend. No Dad. No work excuse. No nothing, but you and me.’’ My son, six hours away at college, is silent. I offer the first incentive I can dream up: “Let’s do this in ways we’ve never done before: We’ll decide where to go as a team, and pick a place that will respect both of our, you know, current phases.’’

He likes to party. I do yoga. Beyond that, we both love good food, great books, and high-endorphin adventure. I see potential for compromise. The choices are easy: ocean or mountain.

Son: The way my mother knocks herself out to let me know she’s “incredibly busy!’’ and doesn’t need my attention is downright endearing. It works, too. When she calls with this idea, pretty much the only reason I want to do it is because she’s my mom, and she deserves it.

“I vote ocean,’’ I tell her. She sounds relieved.

Mom: Time and money are too short to go long on connecting flights with traveler’s checks, so we decide to think local. A dart toss lands on the Florida Keys, a place neither of us has been.

We rendezvous at Miami International Airport, equally stressed from the sardine-press of air travel. Pointing the rental car south, we enter a narrow corridor of mangroves and luxury four-doors sporting every license plate but Florida’s.

Our first discovery is linguistic: Cay or Key? “How do we get to Hawks Cay,’’ I ask the guy at the gas station. Because I’m in the Keys, I intentionally pronounce cay “key.’’ The guy cocks an eyebrow. “You mean Hawks Kaye, [kay], the place in Duck Key?’’ I look over at Nick, who shakes his head.

With the Miami sprawl 90 miles behind us and not much to see beyond our high beams, the comforting glow of our GPS displays US Route 1, the country’s oldest highway. I’m sure Nick is just as nervous as I am about spending a week together in a land of few escape routes. Our fears subside as we roll down our windows to warm air and chattering palm fronds, and pull into the handsome plantation-style spread of Hawks Cay to discover we have plush and homey digs with a great kitchen and, best of all, our own bathrooms.

Son: I wake up to a familiar sound: Mom whispering, “Nick, you have to wake up.’’ The difference is that she leaves an adult cup of coffee and a note beside my bed, “Come join me at the fitness center. Don’t forget, we’re doing the Dolphin Connection at 11.’’

An alternative plot hatches: Hijack the rental car for a quick dash to South Beach to party with my own species. I take a deep breath. On the upside, dolphins ought to be enough to distract her, and at least delay the eventual onslaught of how’s your love life and similar questions.

Other activities on the agenda should leave us too engaged for idle chitchat. Snuba, an aquatic synthesis of snorkel and scuba, is a way to bypass scuba certification, but remain underwater by being fed air from what looks like raft-based umbilical tubes. The turtle hospital will be slightly less gonzo, a humanitarian visit with a bunch of hit-and-run victims.

Mom: As we train for dolphin handling, Nick and I instantly bond with our eye rolls and giggle attacks. Heading for the dock, I pull on his arm. Did you catch any of our instructions? He stops and smiles, “Been a while since you’ve been in a classroom, eh, Mom?’’

Being so close to the animals aces so many of the thrill-based endeavors I pushed, nudged, and coaxed Nick into in years past. We are mutually blown away.

Son: Our interaction with the dolphins is brilliant. We pet Bella’s belly. I dance with Nemo. Lucky pecks each of us on the cheek. We move from one section of the habitat to the next and meet seven dolphins in total.

“OK, guys, now we are going to hug the dolphins and say goodbye,’’ the dolphin handler announces. “This meeting can take place individually or as pairs. Pippin and Nick, how would you like to perform your hugs?’’

I wait for the sensation of awkward embarrassment that usually envelops me in these situations, moments when I feel the need to assert myself as an individual, separate from my mother. It never comes. Mom and I look at each other and smile.

“Together,’’ we say in unison.

Mom: “I’ve got these two things that feel like obligations,’’ I tell Nick. He cringes. “We’re here, so we have to eat some Key lime pie and we should go check out Key West.’’ Nick consents and we head down the road to our destination: Mile Marker 0. We stop at the Key Lime Pie Factory for a piece of what tastes like cheesecake with a solid squirt of lime juice. Good, but I’m sure it’s not the real thing. We miraculously score a parking space in a town I describe as Jimmy Buffet does Bourbon Street. Navigating the sidewalk teeming with illegally parked Harleys and fishnet T-shirts, Nick describes it as Provincetown on steroids.

I’m touched by how he’s as disappointed as I am that the Hemingway Museum is closed. We consider hitting one of the spilling-onto-the-street live music bars. “I’m too old for this,’’ I say. “And I’m not crazy enough,’’ Nick adds. We leave Mile 0 behind to return to the mellower Duck Key.

Son: “What you really want to pay attention to,’’ says Mark, the captain of Robbie’s Marina, in nearby Islamorada, as he spreads out a well-thumbed boater’s map, “are the channels.’’ Mom and I exchange looks. We’ve rented a motorboat for the afternoon. It’s our statement of independence. We’re going to explore the seas without a guide. What were we thinking?

When Mark starts marking up the map, demarcating the shallow water, I feel like a college freshman thrust into a graduate finance class. Mom is fiercely scribbling notes and rolling her eyes. To make matters worse, when our lesson ends, Mom picks up her backpack and says, “You’re the man, Captain!’’ This is going to be a long afternoon.

Mom: Nick saves the day and our dignity with a successful exit from the dock. We repeat Mark’s buoy rule. Our mantra quickly becomes green-left-leaving, red-right-return. The water inspires us to come up with every name we can think of for blue and green: Swedish blue, I say. Coke-bottle green, Nick counters, as if we’re crafting descriptions for paint chip cards. We spot a loggerhead turtle, the arcing pirouette of a bottlenose dolphin, and the comedic splashdowns of pelicans. Nick docks at Indian Key. In our meandering, he manages to split open a green coconut. In the sun, with our feet in the clear water, we scoop and slurp its fresh interior.

Son: We wake up on our last morning to a gray sky and rain. The truth is I’ve been dreading the trip to the turtle hospital all week, fearful of the emotions it could potentially stir in Mom. Inside a renovated ’40s motel, Ryan Butt walks us through the tanks and pool that hold a stunning collection of turtles. “We consider them ambassadors of their species,’’ he says. “They’re here to remind us that we have to be more sensitive to where we live — and everything that lives here.’’ Like always, Mom feels how blown away I am by these struggling creatures. She pats my back and whispers her variation on the line, “Like us — ambassadors of our multigenerational species.’’

Mom: On our last night, having an urge to cook up the local favorites, crab cake and hogfish, I head to the Hawks Cay dining room to see if I can borrow a frying pan and a few spices. An hour later, a beautiful basket arrives filled with fingerling potatoes, fresh thyme, pesto, garlic-steeped olive oil, scallions, ripe tomatoes still on the vine, limes, and a couple of recipes.

I ignore the recipes but use the ingredients. I know it’s good because Nick says, “Mom, this Keys dinner would make a loggerhead flip like a dolphin.’’

Pippin Austin can be reached at pippinross@yahoo.com; Nick Williamson at nwilliamson781@gmail.com.

If You Go

What to do

The Turtle Hospital

2396 Overseas Highway

Marathon

305-743-2552

www.turtlehospital.org

Turtle rescue film is followed by tour several times daily; donations expected.

Robbie’s Marina

77522 Overseas Highway

Islamorada

305-664-8070

www.robbies.com

Fishing, snorkeling, kayaking; motorboat and fishing gear rental; proximity to Lignumvitae Key State Botanical Reserve; Indian Key State Historic Site; $20-$80, from snorkel gear to boat rental.

Tilden’s Scuba Center

4650 Overseas Highway

Marathon

305-743-7255

Snorkeling, scuba, snuba boat trips to reefs; reservations daily; $30 (snorkel), $99 (snuba), $115 (full-gear scuba).

Where to stay

Hawks Cay Island Resort

61 Hawks Cay Boulevard

Duck Key

305-743-7000

www.hawkscay.com

Upscale comfort, $195-$450. The Dolphin Connection, an on-resort research facility, offers daily interaction with dolphins with emphasis on marine ecosystem; $60 (viewing); $150 (interaction); $200 (trainer-for-a-day program).

The Yellowtail Inn

58162 Overseas Highway

Marathon

305-743-8400

www.yellowtailinn.com

Peaceful and clean with oceanfront beach, $109-$279.

Curry Hammock State Park

56200 Overseas Highway

Marathon

305-289-2690

www.floridastateparks.org/curryhammock

Hammocks, mangroves, and wildlife-rich beach and campground, with water and electricity; $36 per night.

Where to eat

The Hungry Tarpon

Robbie’s Marina

305-664-0353

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner; funky fish shack setting with creative, Caribbean-infused cuisine, $5-$20.

Mangrove Mama’s

Sugarloaf

Lunch and dinner with some of the best Key lime pie, $3-$28.