Mariposa Retreat in Sugarloaf Key: Survival, Growth and Hospitality

    By Emily Nipps

    Midge and Tom Jolly recall, almost romantically, the disastrous wrecks that Hurricanes Georges and Wilma made of their Upper Sugarloaf Key home and beloved patch of property.

    “Everything was upside-down and full of mud,” Midge said, and both major storms were significant turning points in their lives and on their land.

    Wilma, in particular, brought in a surging saltwater wrath that, when all was calm and dried, gave birth to the idea that is now a lively and thriving solar salt farm, which Midge and Tom share with curious guests and visitors from out of state.

    They call it Mariposa Retreat, a small bed and breakfast that sits on their quiet handful of acres that they call the Earth and Sea Farm.

    It’s a fascinating getaway, so far removed from the funky downtown streets of Key West, which are only about 15 to 20 minutes away if you feel like shopping, dining and hitting the Duval Street bars.

    But most likely, your time will feel best spent relaxing on the wraparound porch of Midge and Tom’s large stilt home, which includes bedrooms with private entry and a view overlooking a beautiful and vast preserve. The shrill hum of the crickets is often the only sound you’ll hear unless you’re lucky enough to spot a herd of tiny Key deer, snapping twigs as they roam through mangroves and shrubs, munching on leaves.

    The deer sometimes help themselves to Midge’s garden edibles, fragrant flowers and fallen papaya, which is fine with her.

    “The deer were long on this island before we were,” Midge shrugs. 

    Midge and Tom, both master gardeners, love to teach visitors the art and science behind growing food and medicinal herbs on their property, which is no easy venture given the wet, sandy, salty conditions of the Keys.

    But what they’ve done with those conditions is ingenious, particularly when you see their salt houses behind their house. After the tumultuous hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, they began experimenting with solar salt evaporation and test-marketed their salt samples for three years before they were able to sell it publicly in 2010.

    In their large kitchen, which guests may use freely and get fresh coffee, fruit, edible flowers, bread and butter for breakfast, has samples of the salt for purchase. Midge keeps jugs and of cultured cabbage and homemade kombucha, a fermented tea made from a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.

    To live, even for a weekend, on Mariposa Retreat is quite the experience. Hearing the tales of the property and its history, as well as the interesting lives of Midge and Tom or other guests, are what B&B vacations are all about. If you prefer more solitude, there’s plenty of space on the property to wander through the woods, taking care to avoid any poisonous plants Midge has pointed out ahead of time or the visiting bees colonies during bee season.

    One rule of the house:  no fragrances or scented products, as Midge is highly sensitive. The bathroom is well-stocked with natural, fragrance-free shampoos, soaps and lotions to use.

    When arriving or leaving the house, check out the water line marked on one of the stilt posts, which shows the Hurricane Wilma’s flood reach that all but hit the home’s floor that sits on the stilts. Hurricane reminders are everywhere, in fact, which is not uncommon

    “That’s how we tell time in the Keys, is by the hurricanes,” Tom said.

    In between those chaotic and frantic events is a stretch of calm, rebirth and regrowth, a lesson learned well after stay at the tranquil Mariposa Retreat.

    If you go…
    Mariposa Retreat on the Earth & Sea Farm
    Located in Upper Sugarloaf Key

    For more on Florida Keys, be sure to check the Florida Keys vacation guide.


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    The salt is sifted in one of the salt houses at the Mariposa Retreat on the Earth & Sea Farm in Upper Sugarloaf Key.

    - Patrick Farrell for VISIT FLORIDA

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    A welcoming sign signals that visitors have reached the laid-back oasis called the Mariposa Retreat on the Earth & Sea Farm in Upper Sugarloaf Key.

    - Patrick Farrell for VISIT FLORIDA

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    Midge Jolly works inside one of her screened solar salt houses at the Mariposa Retreat on the Earth & Sea Farm in Upper Sugarloaf Key.

    - Patrick Farrell for VISIT FLORIDA


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