Press-Republican

Day Away

January 23, 2011

Key West delights the eye, the palette

The name Key West somehow connotes the exotic — pirates, the challenges of sport fishing, Jimmy Buffett ...

So when a group of friends asked us to accompany them on a short jaunt to the island, my wife, Marty, and I quickly agreed. The reality matches the expectation. Clothing-optional bars, drag shows, daily community parties heralding the sunset, and, of course, Jimmy Buffett.

This, the southernmost place in the continental United States, has an estimated 25,000 permanent residents. On a typical day, it may also have about 18,000 tourists. It's a bit difficult to determine which are having the better time.

CAYO HUESO

Rather than go to Miami, then drive the Overseas Highway a hundred miles or so, we boarded an early morning catamaran at Fort Myers Beach. Our voyage took just over three hours. Thirty more minutes had us checked into small but comfortable rooms at the eight-room Garden House then sitting at Schooner Wharf with our first round of margaritas.

For an overview of the island, we went on the Conch Train, an open-air caravan that has been giving tours here for 50 years. Two hours gave us a good sense of history, an introduction into lifestyles and architecture, and plenty of ideas for filling the next few days.

That history dates back to 1521 and Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer better known for his search for the fountain of youth. The Spanish didn't stay, but they left a name to the place — Cayo Hueso, referring to piles of bones found on the island. In time, this was anglicized to Key West.

Pirates did frequent the area, but when Florida became part of the United States, a military base helped keep them at bay. With permanent settlement also came an economy — based at first on sponge fishing and turtles. And shipwrecks, largely courtesy of a 200-mile reef offshore, made salvage such a lucrative activity that 19th-century Key West not only grew into the largest and richest city in Florida but also the place with the highest per capita income in the entire country.

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