One of the greatest things you can do during these darkest days of the year is get yourself to South Florida somehow, rent a car, punch Key West—no particular address, anywhere in the vicinity will do, really—into your GPS and start driving.
So much of the rest of America at this time of year is brown, barren, or even buried under half a foot of snow, maybe even more; if you are very lucky, and often you are, by the time you hit Key Largo, your first stop after leaving the mainland, you'll be reaching for your sunglasses and wishing you'd changed into shorts and a t-shirt back at the airport.
Summer may have ended just a few short months ago, but here are colors and light which you had likely already forgotten could exist, at least on the American mainland—everything is blue and green and bright, full of life and in your face. You pull over at Bahia Honda State Park and practically leap over that narrow little beach and into the brilliant, aquamarine gulf water; no matter what you had to do to get down here, it was worth it. You could fly all over the Caribbean at this time of year, and there are no guarantees that you will have done better for your money, or your time.
Of course, that's most years. This is not a normal year for the Florida Keys, where they've spent the entire fall season trying to recover from the damaging effects of Hurricane Irma, which swept through the region back in September. Now, the roads are open, there are many hotels back in business, but if you know the Keys, and in some places, even if you don't, it's hard to ignore the reality, starting with Bahia Honda, which derives a great deal of its magic from fragile and gorgeous oceanfront beaches. Those are now closed, as the 500-acre park undergoes an extensive cleanup. You can swim on the opposite side, but it's a small beach, and it's not quite the same, not just yet—at least this week the temperatures were hitting the 80's, with plenty of sunshine; that's got to be good for something, right?
Up and down the Keys it's a similar story—they're still there, and not going anywhere, but to get the full experience, you'll need to be a little patient, which is probably the least you can do, considering there are entire communities down here that may not fully recover for years to come. The luxurious Little Palm Island Resort, for example, one of Florida's most exclusive hotels, remains shuttered, possibly until 2019, according to the hotel. The very special Dry Tortugas National Park, typically reached via regularly scheduled boat trips and float plane rides from Key West, is open and accepting reservations for its primitive campsites, some of the most prized accommodations in the Keys, but you'll find the historic Fort Jefferson undergoing stabilization work through the spring, with work starting at 7:00 a.m. in the morning. (Hope you weren't planning to sleep in.)
In Key West, the destination for most visitors to the Keys, many brought here by cruise ship (hundreds of thousands of them each year, actually), casual visitors not checking under the proverbial bed will find most everything to be in order—from lively Duval Street and the scene around Mallory Square, to popular attractions like the Earnest Hemingway Home, it's all here, and best of all, if you time it right, there are dates in the new year where some of the city's best budget lodging options, for instance The Gates Hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, and the Fairfield Inn and Suites (there are two of those) can be had for about $200 a night. Considering you didn't have to fly offshore to the tune of hundreds of dollars, and also taking into account the fact that you have, even in the depths of December, a good chance of 80 degree weather and sunshine most afternoons, that's something like a screaming deal.