Key West: A Heavenly Concoction
by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
It’s chilly in Key West, as we speed down the Atlantic Coast Highway. Our goal is to reach THE Southernmost Point of the U.S. in time to watch the sun take its nightly plunge into the ocean. Purple, red and orange streaks are already igniting the sky. Michel hits the accelerator and honks (members of our tour groups won’t be surprised…) at local drivers, slowly meandering along, jaded as they are, by another spectacular sunset in Paradise.
We arrive just in the nick of time, and are able to enjoy the magnificent light show. Later, that evening, at the Thirsty Mermaid, we savor another Key West specialty — fresh seafood. Wahoo, caught just a few hours before hitting the grill, is something sublime. And chefs who grew up preparing such delicacies are in abundance here as well.
We sit at the tiny bar, chatting up the gregarious, sociable locals — what’s to be cranky about in Paradise, after all?!? They share their lists of favorite fish joints and rum bars. It’s a convivial mix of beachcombers, old hippies, retired dot.com millionaires, retired drug runners and a few tourists, like us. Something about the gravitational pull at this southernmost point of the U.S. seems to attract especially colorful, liberated types.
For over three centuries, Key West was governed, in the loosest sense of the word, by Spain. Only pirates and itinerate fishermen occupied the islands. Later, Britain ruled for twenty-five years, but like the Spaniards, never attempted to settle the islands.
In 1821, Florida was transferred to the U.S. and American businessmen quickly realized the strategic worth of the outlying key. Several investors bought the island — at the same time — just the first of many questionable Florida real estate deals. Ultimately, railroad magnate Henry Flagler established a train line from Miami to Key West and the U.S. Government built Fort Taylor. The island began to prosper and attract businesses and permanent residents. But, that ungovernable pirate spirit still flourishes in Key West.
In 1982, the city famously seceded from the union! Angry Key West citizens declared their independence and formed the Conch Republic after the U.S. Border Patrol set up a blockade to control immigration and drug running. The border stop created nightmarish traffic jams that paralyzed the southern keys. Protests and demonstrations in Key West generated tremendous publicity and the border stops were removed. Today tourists can purchase Conch Republic flags and passports — it’s all part of the local pageantry, cheekiness and, of course, centuries of complete autonomy.
OLD WRITERS AND THE SEA
Certainly one of the most prominent of Key West’s colorful inhabitants was Ernest Hemingway. The Nobel-winning author lived in the city from 1931 to 1942. During this period, he wrote one of his great classic titles, For Whom the Bell Tolls, as well as acclaimed short stories, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and the Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.
When Hemingway purchased his home, it was one of the most-modern of its day, with plumbing, built-in fireplaces and the first swimming pool in Key West. Constructed from limestone, quarried at the site, the structure has withstood numerous hurricanes, including Irma, most recently.
The house is now a National Historic Landmark — The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum — and thousands of tourists wander through its rooms to conjure up Hemingway’s spirit. We join the crowds to admire “Papa’s” art and furniture collections. Standing in front of an ancient typewriter I imagine the great writer coaxing precisely the right words from the stodgy machine.
The gardens surrounding the property are fascinating as well, filled with rare palms and flowers. Here too, we find the “fountain” made from a urinal procured from Hemingway’s favorite bar, Sloppy Joe’s. The fountain is also a favorite hangout for the six-toed cats. Unfortunately, our encounter with the kitties is far too brief. We can’t get close enough to verify the number of toes. We do learn that the polydactyl cats were thought to bring good-luck at sea and that the extra toes helped the animals balance on rocking ships, as well as to catch mice — the main reason they were allowed aboard.
I JUST SAW ERNEST HEMINGWAY!!!
Sloppy Joe’s is a quick 6-minute walk from the Hemingway House. The great writer, of course, made the most of the convenient location. If you’re ready for more “literary research” pop into the bar for a quick break. Daiquiris were Hemingway’s drink of choice.
This year, the august bar will hold its 38th annual Hemingway Look-Alike Contest. If you happen to be in the Keys the weekend of July 19-22, this is an event to see. If you have a white beard you might even want to sign up!
Another beverage option for Hemingway fans is Papa’s Pilar Rum Distillery. Housed in a beautiful refurbished brick building on Simonton Street, the property offers a FREE tasting of their premium rums. Tours of the distillery are also available, along with rum recipes and Hemingway-ish souvenirs.
MORE FREE SPIRITS
Given the remarkable beauty and unique wildlife that abounds in the Keys, it’s no surprise that ornithologist-extraordinaire, John James Audubon, spent time in Key West. The Audubon House & Tropical Gardens, located in an exquisite 170-year old mansion, commemorates Audubon’s 1832 visit to Key West and displays lithographs of birds he observed in the region. If you fall in love with the paintings, you can purchase them in the gift shop — the perfect Key West souvenir.
The mansion itself is exceptional and well worth viewing. Originally owned by John Huling Geiger, a so-called Wrecker, who derived his fortune from of rescuing ships and salvaging the cargo — a very lucrative business. Geiger constructed his home entirely with mortise and tenon joints, using regional hardwoods that are now all but extinct. Stained glass windows, period furniture and beautifully landscaped tropical gardens all add to the breath-taking beauty of the place.
Enjoy hundreds more winged creatures at the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. Here, more than 60 species of butterflies and exotic birds live within a natural setting that includes tropical flowers, trees and waterfalls. We sat for over an hour, watching butterflies swoop around us — heavenly!
You’re starving, right? Louie’s Backyard is a Key West institution, and an experience not to be missed. We prefer lunch because the jaw-dropping views are best during the day. By night, the jaw-dropping experience is more likely to be the menu prices. Whichever meal you choose, be sure to reserve well ahead. Try the Conch Chowder, Fried Anchovies and Rock Shrimp with Mango Escabeche.
For something quick within the city, stop by B.O.’s Fish Wagon, on Caroline & William streets. Don’t let the broken-down truck and shabby furniture scare you off. Just think of it as “junkyard chic.” The Grouper Sandwiches, Soft Shelled Crab and Cracked Conch are some of the city’s best. Ask for extra B.O. Key Lime Sauce to top off anything you order — sublime. And check the schedule for evening jam sessions, although the jamming frequently occurs off-schedule. Remember, FREE SPIRITS….
QUEST FOR THE ICONIC KEY LIME PIE
Now for Dessert! If you’ve sampled Key Lime Pie any place other than South Florida, chances are you’ve never really had Key Lime Pie. The tiny limes used to make the original dessert are rare now, even in the Keys. The citrus trees are simply incredibly difficult to grow and maintain.
Here are a few good options for classic versions of Key Lime Pie with real Key Limes:
Old Town Bakery
930 Eaton Street
Key Lime Pie the old fashioned way, with free lime juice and a gingersnap crust, topped with fresh whipped cream. The Bakery’s appealing tropical decor adds to the enjoyment of the deserts.
Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe
200 Elizabeth Street
It’s obvious, from the name of his establishment, that Kermit is serious about his pies. And he’s been serving them for over 20 years. Choose from the original version in a graham cracker crust. or a frozen piece of pie on a stick dipped in Belgian chocolate — nothing better on a hot summer day.
806 Caroline Street
Around since 1909 and supposedly the oldest restaurant in Key West, Pepe’s has had years of experience making the local pie. You can’t go wrong here.
MEL FISHER’S TREASURE HUNT
Once you’re fed and refreshed, maybe you’ll want to embark on a treasure hunt. A modern day legend in the Keys, Mel Fisher began a relentless, sixteen year quest for a Spanish Galleon named Nuestra Señora de Atocha. The ship went down during a hurricane in 1622. Spanish salvagers tried for decades to locate the Atocha’s cargo: 24 tons of silver bullion, 180,000 silver coins, 125 gold bars and discs, 1,200 pounds of worked silverware — a treasure trove almost beyond imagination.
You can view many of these items at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Other articles on display include dazzling solid gold necklaces, belts and assorted jewelry. Equally fascinating are artifacts from 17th century daily life: rare navigational instruments, military armaments, tools, ceramic vessels, even seeds and insects.
In addition to the Atocha treasures are exhibits from other prominent wrecks and in-depth information concerning underwater archaeology.
As you’ve undoubtedly deduced, sunsets in Key West are a big deal — at least to tourists. Mallory Square is the best known spot for nightly sunset celebrations. Street performers, musicians, vendors, assorted odd characters (using the most diplomatic terms I can muster) and tons of tourists gather to watch the sunset…or each other, it’s often difficult to tell.
Our advice: Skip the crowds and cuckoos, and catch the ferry to Sunset Key — appropriately named! On the water, you can enjoy Mother Nature’s light show in all its splendor. Once you dock at the Key, take a leisurely walk on the beach, savor the last rays of the day. Slowly make your way to Latitudes. The restaurant was recently voted as Open Table’s Best Scenic Restaurant in America and clearly the management makes the most of the spectacular views. Tiki torches light up the evening skies and tables are set up near the water.
The menu is quite good. However, you can opt to simply have a drink in the Latitude bar, enjoy the surroundings and grab the ferry back to Key West. If you want to dine, be sure to call for reservations and adhere to the dress code: Collared shirts, dress shorts and shoes.
Other great options for dinner:
632 Olivia Street
Really escape the tourists and dine at this small neighborhood restaurant. Fresh local seafood is lovingly prepared with simple, but elegant sides. Our favorite plates were a Conch Chowder that was unbelievably silky, creamy and refined. Bread served with Kimchee Butter, Shallots & Bacon was exceptional.
Main course standouts are Snapper with Pearl Couscous, Swiss Chard & Guava Beurre Blanc; Diver Scallops with Roasted Corn Puree & Shiitake Mushrooms; or the locals favorite – Lobster, Shrimp & Crab Pot Pie. Finish with a Moscato, Ginger Poached Pear & Gelato. Or skip dessert and indulge in one of several good Ports listed on the menu. Caution: Little Pearl is tiny and fills up fast. Be sure to make reservations well in advance.
314 Duval Street
If the evening is chilly, find a cozy table by the fireplace at the Grand Cafe. Or enjoy the wrap-around veranda and watch the throngs of revelers on Duval. Start your meal with a Yellowfin Tuna Tartare or the Caviar Selection.
Main dish choices include seafood, of course: Snapper Meuniere, Linguine with Clams, or Lobster. Steaks, hand-cut to order are also available as is Surf & Turf, Roast Duck or Braised Lamb Shanks. Have the Chocolate Bread Pudding with Whiskey Praline Sauce a la Mode for dessert. It’s Key West, after all. You’re allowed to go crazy!
WHERE TO STAY
Bed & Breakfast establishments are a hallmark of Key West vacations. Cute Victorian cottages, painted in pretty pastel colors are picture postcard charming. Interestingly, the B&B’s came into existence in the late 1930’s, after a devastating hurricane. The government offered Key West residents incentives to turn their homes into Guest Homes in an effort to help tourism rebound. It worked! Well over 100 Bed & Breakfasts are available to visitors these days. The “Pink Gold” economy, as it’s affectionately referred to, is thriving.
Official Tourism Site of the Florida Keys:
The Florida State Tourism Directory provides a comprehensive listing of all Key West Guest Houses, Inns, and Bed & Breakfast properties.
A bit of advice: Staying within the city is obviously great for quick access to all attractions and most restaurants. However, happy tourists can often be very noisy and parking is limited and expensive. Additionally, the adorable chickens, who run freely throughout the streets get up around 5:00 a.m. — a nuisance to vacationeers trying to sleep in. Finally, be sure to check that children and/or pets are allowed, as many of the Guest Houses restrict clientele.
We booked the DoubleTree Resort for our stay. The property has been recently remodeled. Rooms are comfortable and spacious. The pool area is particularly attractive and children and pets are welcome. The resort is approximately 3 miles from the Old Town, so a good distance from traffic and noise, but inconvenient to walk to most attractions. However, a shuttle leaving on the hour, is convenient and easy to use.
Take note: If you miss the shuttle, like we did, and can’t wait another hour, beware that taxi fares can be exorbitant. We paid $45 to return from the Pier to the Resort. Finally, be sure to verify Resort Fees (for any of the major properties) to avoid surprises on your final bill.
Key West was miraculously spared when Hurricane Irma struck on September 13, 2017. The islands unique buildings and eco-systems were left essentially untouched. Key West has 187 buildings registered as National Historic Landmarks. More than 3,000 homes and buildings date from 1886 to 1912. To lose these irreplaceable architectural gems would be a tragedy.
Sadly the remaining Keys bore the brunt of Irma’s wrath. As we drive north on Atlantic Highway, U.S. 1, we’re horrified to see the destruction. The Category 4 hurricane made landfall in Cudjoe Key, just outside of Key West. Storm surge of over 10-feet throughout the Keys damaged or destroyed approximately 28,000 homes.
Piles of rubble, sometimes 12-feet high, line the highway for miles. Once unspoiled forests of mangroves are trashed. The endless blue horizons that usually define the drive are cluttered with debris. We’re at a loss to describe the devastation.
Dump trucks also line the highway, making valiant attempts to carry away the piles of garbage, but many more man hours will be required to completely restore the Keys.
It’s all a grim reminder that Island Life, with its sandy beaches, tropical palms, rum drinks and magenta sunsets is heavenly — until major storms blow in to shatter the dream scenarios. Here’s to the Conch Republic — all it’s survived and has yet to endure. Our best to that astounding concoction of modern pirates, slick entrepreneurs, talented chefs, intrepid fishermen and multi-generational Free Spirits — may they carry on, and on, and on……..