Cook's Island, Florida

Even those who live on islands that others consider getaways need their escapes. For the residents of Key West, one of these destinations is Cook’s Island. You won’t find the neon of Duval Street or the lines in front of Pepe’s. You won’t find any bars—or traffic lights, boardwalks, bikes, or shops. Just 20 minutes from Mile Marker 28 across Newfound Sound and with only 67 acres supporting eleven homes, Cook’s is a micro-world away. While now powered by solar panels (where previously propane fueled stoves and refrigerators) and with water provided by cisterns, this isold Old Florida, one that Hemingway and the cigar makers and spongers would recognize. Captain Percy Cook first settled the island in the 1920s, building a cottage that exudes such a spirit of place that authors and artists rent it for retreats, and famous companies use it for their catalog shoots.

Conchs aren’t the only people eager to visit Cook’s: occasionally Cubans—less than 100 miles away—try to land on its shores. The immigration policy is known as “Wet foot/dry foot”—if you’re still at sea (wet feet), the Coast Guard will turn you back, but if you can manage to get one foot on our soil (or sand as the case may be), you will be allowed to stay, and will eventually be offered citizenship (don’t try a dock, though—it has to be land, not a manmade structure). But even if you are a US citizen, Cook’s is off limits—it’s a private island; you need an invitation from a homeowner to dock and explore.

The few lucky families who call this home (or home away from home) scuba dive in crystal waters, kayak on calm seas accompanied by manatees, pelicans and bonnet sharks, or try their luck with the lobster and stone crab traps just off shore. More often than not, though, folks opt for sunning, sitting and sipping instead—a state of relaxed anti-achievement that’s earned Cook’s the moniker “Lethargy Island.” On shore, key deer, salamanders and a host of birds provide entertainment. With so few people strolling the beach, a wealth of shells lies in wait. Occasionally stranger items also wash ashore, including the rare “square grouper”—the bales of marijuana jettisoned from drug traffickers’ boats.

AT-A-GLANCE

Monroe County, Florida

Coordinates: 24-37'46'' N, 081-22'28'' W

Bounded by: N: Coupon Bight; E, S, W: Florida Straits

Tribal Forebears: Calusa Indians

Wildlife: Key deer; salamanders; blue herons, snowy egrets, brown pelicans and other shore birds

Beach and Waves: Coral shards; gentle waves, often lake-like