Real-life Island Runaway: How Brad Bertelli found his bliss in the Florida Keys

One of our favorite parts about running the Island Runaways blog is the chance to capture stories of folks who really, truly "ran away" to the islands, not just for a week or a month, but for good! As idyllic as any tropical island getaway or vacation might seem to you and me, living "on a rock" on a day-to-day basis can be very different, even challenging. (For some hilarious island misadventures, by the way, check out the blog Women Who Live on Rocks!) Today, our interview guest, Brad Bertelli, a writer, historian, and museum curator, tells us how he escaped to more than one island, and how he discovered his true love in the Florida Keys.

(Brad in the Keys with a buddy. Photo courtesy of Brad & Michelle Bertelli.)

Island Runaways: Before you made your home in the Florida Keys, you lived on another island, or so I have heard. How did islands become a part of your life?

Brad Bertelli: I grew up in a Southern California beach town, Huntington Beach. I lived there, but never felt at home. I was watching a lot of Magum P.I. in those days and I can’t say for sure whether I became so invested in the show because I wanted to live on an island or if it was because I wanted to run away to an island that I became invested in the show. Whichever the case, what became clear is that all I wanted to do was hang out on an island and write.

In 1989, my girlfriend at the time told me about an island off the coast of southwest Florida called Captiva. There was a big resort, South Seas Plantation that had employee housing. I borrowed $100 from my girlfriend and bought a one-way ticket to Miami out of the classifieds in the Los Angeles Times. When I landed in Miami, I had no friends, no car, no job, no credit cards and only $200-$300 in my wallet. I spent the first night sleeping on the floor of the airport and the next morning bought a Greyhound ticket to Fort Myers on the west coast. From there I hitchhiked out to Captiva. I was finally living on an island.

(Beautiful Captiva island. Photo by Pat (Clench) William, Flickr.)

Island Runaways: What led you to move to the Florida Keys?

Brad Bertelli: Years later, while I was attending the University of Miami’s MFA program, I always had the intention of moving back to Sanibel or Captiva. In the meantime, however, I began coming down to the Keys for long weekends. Right after graduation, I borrowed a little extra student loan money and moved to Tavernier in 2001. I have been living on Plantation Key ever since. Fourteen years later, I have never lived more than one mile from where I first landed.

Island Runaways: What is it about island life that appeals to you?

Brad Bertelli: For me it was simple. I understood early on that most writing is done in solitude with whatever one’s chosen vice… coffee, rum, or whatever. It was clear that if I was going to have to work in the hospitality industry to support my writing habit than I was going to live in a place where I really wanted to be. Anyone who realizes how little writing generally pays understands that vacations were not going to be happening and besides, I had spent most of my 20s traveling and living out of a backpack so I was ready to be still and just write. Island life works for me.

(Brad signing one of his books in Key West. Photo courtesy of Brad Bertelli.)

Island Runaways: How have you managed to live in a place a lot of people consider "paradise"?

Brad Bertelli: Work is hard in the islands. Most of the work options are based in the hospitality industry and I had over a decade of experience in that field when I arrived. There are loads of temptations here, but working hard was never a problem for me. There is a particular disease associated with living in the Florida Keys that locals call the Keys Disease. While I have nothing against the vices generally associated with Keys Disease, I always understood that writing was what was important to me and not partying.

Island Runaways: Today you have published four books, including two on Florida Keys history. How did you become a historian?

Brad Bertelli: [One reason is] my mentor Jerry Wilkinson, president of the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys, who I have been studying under since 2009. He is 86, but might have just turned 87. I am just trying to learn as much as I can about this really fascinating subject. There has already been so much history lost here and I feel a responsibility to write about the history of not just the Florida Keys, but of the Upper Keys in particular so there is a good record of it for future generations.

Island Runaways: The islands led you to your true love. Can you tell us a little about how you met your wife, a fellow "island runaway"?

Brad Bertelli: I met my wife Michelle on her second day in the Florida Keys. I was working at a restaurant in Islamorada, in the dining room polishing forks, when a VW Jetta pulled into the parking lot. A really pretty blond stepped out. As I watched her approaching the restaurant I turned away and said to the manager, “If this girl applies for a job, hire her.” That was May 2003. We just celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary. I married the Prom Queen.

(Brad and Michelle Bertelli, two "island runaways." Photo courtesy of Brad & Michelle Bertelli.)

Island Runaways: What a great story! Is Islamorada where you imagine staying for the rest of your life? Or what's the next chapter?

Brad Bertelli: I am not sure if I will be in Islamorada for the rest of my life or not. I know I have a job to do here and I don’t know how long it is going to take me to create the story of the Upper Keys at the Keys History & Discovery Center museum where I work as the curator. Theoretically I might never be done. Do I think I’ll be here forever? It is really hard to say. Ideally, we would like to have a house in Key West. That, too, is a big dream but it has been my experience that dreaming big pays dividends.

(Brad speaking on Upper Keys history. Photo courtesy of Brad Bertelli.)

Island Runaways: Not only do you write books and work as a curator, you’re doing other stuff…

Brad Bertelli: I write a bi-weekly column for The Reporter about whatever slice of Keys history I feel like writing about. I also formed a little walking tour company, Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours, where I am able to take people on interpretive walking tours around my favorite island in the chain and the Keys’ only ghost town, Indian Key.

(Brad in historic dress for the Indian Key tour. Photo courtesy of Brad Bertelli.)

Island Runaways: It sounds like a good life.

Brad Bertelli: Yeah, I’m here now with my wife Michelle and our little house on Plantation Key. She has a job she loves and I have a job I love. Ten years ago I could have never anticipated where I am today and I am old enough to realize there are just too many twists and turns in a life to predict where we might be in another ten years… much less forever.

Brad Bertelli is the author of Snorkeling Florida, Snorkeling the Florida Keys, Key Largo, and Islamorada. All his books are available on The Keys History & Discovery Center is located on the Islander Resort property in Islamorada.

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