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Letter from Key West: Crimes against cartography

An image of beach umbrellas and swimmers at Bahia Honda State park, with the bridge in the background.
Bob Krist/Bob Krist/Florida Keys News Bure
Florida Keys News Bureau
You can camp in some beautiful places in the Keys, including Bahia Honda State Park, shown here. Unless you're in the military or a veteran, Key West isn't one of them.

For the Oct. 15 edition of The South Florida Roundup, Nancy Klingener wrote about what she's learned from absurd Google Alert results and how people view where they are in South Florida.

I have Google alerts set up for Key West and the Florida Keys. Usually the results are stories I know about. Sometimes they're even my own stories. Sometimes I get stories about a community near Dubuque, Iowa, called Key West.

Sometimes I get stories about English soccer, when a headline refers to a KEY development with the Premier League club WEST Ham United.

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My favorite results are the absurd ones. They're usually travel stories that get something about the place hilariously wrong. Like the one this week, telling me that Key West is Florida's "top city to go camping in."

Camping ... in Key West? Really?!?

The only campground is on Navy property, but that's only available for members of the military and veterans. Don’t try to pop a tent, light a fire and stretch out without expecting to face the MPs.

So how could Key West be the top city to go camping in — especially above great wild places in Florida you can actually camp like Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve.

Turns out, Key West topped the list of searches according to a vacation rental search engine. Almost 9,000 searches a month. And Key West gets lots of sunshine, giving us a camping score of 10.

People here in the Keys laughed at this news when I posted it on social media. Maybe campers were looking for campgrounds after seeing the sky-high room rates at hotels, one friend said. I think there's something else at work, too — which another friend in the travel industry identified. People genuinely think of the entire 106-mile long island chain as "Key West."

I had a brief stint working at a guesthouse 20 years ago and there was more than one traveler who stumbled in, shocked after learning that Key West was not, in fact, 30 minutes from Miami International Airport. They were even more shocked when they realized what time they would have to leave the island to catch their flight home.

Is this geographic confusion … or conflation? Misinformation? Or mistakes about how to read a map?

Whatever it is, we're not alone. There are lots of people who think all of South Florida is “Miami," even though the city of Miami has less than 20% of Miami-Dade County's population. Sorry, Miami Beach, Hialeah, Virginia Gardens, Coral Gables. Sorry Fort Lauderdale, Davie and Weston. Palm Beach? Well, maybe you have your own brand, but ask West Palm Beach and Palm Beach County how they feel.

So the world thinks all of the South Florida mainland is Miami, and all of the islands are Key West. So what? That's just one of the benefits of living here and getting to know this place.

We know the difference between Key West and Sugarloaf Key, between Coral Springs and Carol City. We know who we are, and where we are, even if the rest of the world doesn’t. After all, this is home.

You can camp in the Keys, by the way — at a couple of the state parks, and there are some private campgrounds. You used to be able to camp in Key West — at a trailer park right on the water in the historic seaport area. But that site was turned into a hotel years ago.

Want to “camp out” there now? Rooms start at $360 a night.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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