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.


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.


Florida seceded during the Civil War, but naval presence kept Key West under Union rule throughout the conflict. Afterwards, fishing resumed. Immigrants flooded in from the Bahamas. And from Cuba. The Cubans staffed cigar factories, key to the next boom economy.

Our guide Jennea pointed out examples of local architecture. Shotgun cottages were built by cigar factory owners for their workers. An occasional ornate Victorian survived the city's worst fire in 1886. Tin roofs, required after the fire, also facilitated collection of water in cisterns.

Vernacular construction mixed New England and Bahamian influences, including exterior shutters, wraparound porches, lots of gingerbread and eyebrow windows designed to assist ventilation (which they didn't). An occasional ship captain's home is capped by a widow's walk.

The now dormant Flagler Station provided a chance to describe the next major event. Henry Flagler, once a partner of John D. Rockefeller in Standard Oil, had built railroads down the east coast of Florida. He opened grand hotels along the way to lure tourists to the region. His most audacious project was to build tracks from Miami all the way to Key West, a 130-mile route that crossed almost as much water as land. Virtually everyone in town turned out to greet the first arriving train in 1912. That, plus completion of the Panama Canal, helped Key West thrive as a port.


World War I and the Great Depression devastated the economy. Beautification projects and grand tourism plans sought to recapture Key West's halcyon days. The hurricane of 1935 quashed that initiative when it roared through, destroying the rail line and killing several hundred people on the Keys.

Cigar manufacturing is long gone. So is commercial fishing, though as recently as the 1950s, more than 300 shrimp boats operated from the harbor. The rail route never got rebuilt. It was replaced instead by the Overseas Highway, itself an engineering marvel, along the same route that Flagler brought trains.

Tourism has come back, of course, and appears to be stronger than ever.

Duval Street recalls a mix of vintage Lake George and Gatlinburg, with perhaps a bit of New Orleans and Havana mixed in. Every bar — and there are plenty — offers some kind of legend. Maybe Ernest Hemingway or Tennessee Williams had a drink here. Or Jimmy Buffett performed there. You get the picture.

At one corner stands the southern terminus of US Route 1 (2,209 miles to Fort Kent, Maine). Near another is a building that housed the first office of Pan American Airways. Its first route, in 1926, was Key West to Havana. Somewhere else, a monument marks the southernmost point of the United States. No sign marks the highest elevation on the island, an awe-inspiring 18 feet.


We stopped at the home Ernest Hemingway once bought for $8,000 — and to which his wife added a swimming pool soon afterwards for another $20,000. Inside are lots of photographs, what's left of his personal book collection (much of which remains in Cuba), some rods and reels and a model of his fishing boat.

Furnishings were more elegant than I might have expected for his reputation. Then we learned his wife was a fashion editor for Vogue. Tall windows open onto lush gardens with hidden alcoves. Descendants of the writer's six-toed cats wander about; a cat cemetery preserves their forebears.

Another popular tourist haunt is the Little White House, built as Naval Commandant quarters in 1890. It welcomed Harry Truman for a much-needed rest after his intense first year as President, a stretch that included the decision to drop the first atomic bomb, the organization of the United Nations and the Potsdam Conference. The standing-room-only tour was quite informative.

Truman loved the place — he returned 11 times, spending a total of 175 days there — and the locals loved him. Furnishings are as unpretentious as at his home in Independence, Mo. His piano is here, plus his Victrola, on which he played the records he carried around in an official leather briefcase. There's also his custom-made mahogany poker table; a hollow cover hid it when wife, Bess, joined him in Key West.

Key West is where John Jay Audubon lived while drawing birds here in 1832; an aquarium that had been planned as the centerpiece of the 1935 economic revival; one museum about construction of the railroad across the Florida Keys, and another about shipwrecks; a butterfly house; and quite a bit more.


But if you have a chance to sample just one aspect of Key West, make it the evening sunset ritual on the pier adjacent to Mallory Square. The crowd must have surpassed 5,000 on this very ordinary Monday. Kids of all ages, grandparents, locals, tourists and others all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.

Vendors plied their wares. Fortune tellers predicted futures. One man drew portraits in 15 minutes. Another played guitar with one hand, held a harmonica in the other and activated various percussion devices with his feet. Buskers sang. Jugglers juggled. An escape artist worked his way out of a set of chains. The festivities even included a sword swallower.

But as the sun slowly dropped on the western horizon, all attention turned to its descent. We benefitted from just enough cloud cover to produce a rich range of reds and violets. Schooners and smaller sailboats glided along to add atmosphere. The yellow orb disappeared, and the crowd dispersed, knowing the occasion would repeat itself a mere 24 hours later. Next time we visit, we'll gather there again.

A few final notes: Expect to see chickens almost anywhere. Cuban immigrants brought them for cockfighting, a sport popular in their homeland. It's illegal in the United States, plus Key West is a bird sanctuary. So they thrive. On the other hand, there are absolutely no squirrels.

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