Key West is a haven for artists, writers and the world weary who love the town’s carefree atmosphere and historic charm.
As the Crystal Symphony made its way to the U.S. Navy Pier in Key West, Florida, several dozen sleek yachts appeared on our port side headed for the Gulf of Mexico. We had unwittingly arrived in “The Conch Republic” during one its most popular events of the year – Key West Race Week. And from the deck of our ship, we could see the fleet of international boats jostling for position as they made their way to the start line for the day’s first race.
We could have spent entire morning watching these beautiful racing yachts, but with only one day to explore historic Key West, we decided to cut the race short and spend some time in the old section of town.
Located just 150 km north of Cuba at the southern most point in the continental United States, Key West was discovered by Spaniard Ponce de Leon in 1521. He named the tropical island Cayo Hueso (Bone Key) because it was littered with skeletons from the native Calusa Indians who once lived there. Since many of the early residents to Key West were immigrants from the Bahamas known as “conchs,” many locals also refer to the island as “The Conch Republic”.
Once Key West became part of the United States in the early 19th century, it quickly became an important port because of its strategic location on the Straits of Florida between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.
In fact, by 1860 the town’s booming salvage industry had made it the largest and richest city in Florida with many beautiful stone buildings and wooden mansions.
Today, Key West is a haven for artists, writers and the world weary who love the town’s carefree atmosphere, historic architecture, warm weather and lush tropical setting. It’s a state of mind, locals explain, that is best described by former resident Jimmy Buffet in his hit song “Changes in Latitude, Changes in Attitude.”
After getting the requisite attitude adjustment at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville Bar on Duval Street, my wife Gail and I made our way up the road to the famous Conch Train for a guided tour of the Key West Historic District. The tour goes past most of the major attractions in the Old Town including Hemmingway House, the Truman Annex, the Audubon House, and Sloppy Joe’s Bar where writer Ernest Hemmingway used to drink the nights away.
Hemingway moved to Key West and bought a house here in 1931 where he wrote most of his major novels including For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. His house is now a museum filled with many of his personal treasures such as a ceramic cat by Pablo Picasso (a gift to the writer from the artist), and a hand-blown glass chandelier that Hemingway acquired in Venice.
The Audubon House and Gardens are also located on Whitehead Street, just few blocks away from Hemingway House. Built in the 1840s, the house belonging to the great naturalist John James Audubon is now a museum filled with antiques, and some rare lithographs of American birds, wildlife and foliage.
After completing our tour, we walked along Duval Street where we ducked into several great stores including Fast Buck Freddie’s, the legendary Key West department store, and Towels of Key West, which makes terry-cloth towels and robes from their own island-style designs.
Since it was now time for some liquid refreshment and food, we made our way to the La Te Da Hotel and restaurant on lower Duval Street. Located in a beautiful Key West-style wooden mansion, the restaurant sits in a lovely courtyard surrounded by tall trees and a spa-style swimming pool. It also has a small room upstairs that presents cabaret-style shows with local legends like Randy Roberts, who impersonates some of world’s most loved performers, including Cher and Bette Midler. We had a marvelous lunch there of Conch Bisque followed by Panko-crusted Mahi-Mahi topped with salsa, all washed down with some cool sauvignon blanc wine.
Stomachs and shopping bags now full, we made our way back to the Crystal Symphony for the sunset sail-away party on the pool deck. Key West is famous for its gorgeous sunsets, and as we looked over the side of our ship to see a bright yellow ball sinking into the Gulf of Mexico, we certainly understood why. Our only regret was that we wouldn’t be seeing it again the next night.
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