Best of Key West - Ten things you mustn’t miss when
visiting the southernmost point of the USA
The Overseas Highway to Key West follows a trail originally
blazed in 1912 when Henry Flagler extended his railroad from Miami
to the last of the Florida Keys. A hurricane destroyed the
railroad in 1935 but the highway survives to provide a dramatic
experience of driving over the sea. Drive slowly to appreciate
fully the beauty of this marine wilderness which spans 42 bridges,
including the famous Seven Mile Bridge.
Secede, Don’t Fail
Take time to do nothing but savor the unique
end-of-the-road atmosphere of Key West which, whilst separated
from mainland Florida by only 100 miles, is attitudinally a world
apart. Long a haven for wreckers, writers, artists and
adventurers, the island is a melting pot of cultures and
influences united by an easygoing irreverence. President Truman
was so enchanted by Key West he declared: “I’ve a notion to
move the capital to Key West and just stay”. The island had
other ideas and declared itself the independent “Conch
(pronounced “conk”) Republic” in 1982.
Join visitors and islanders as they celebrate sunset each evening
at Mallory Square, the historic pier overlooking the Gulf of
Mexico. This waterfront carnival features colorful jugglers,
musicians, fortune tellers, street vendors and craftspeople. A
kilted bagpiper plays. A tightrope walker balances high above the
crowd. The “Cookie Lady” sells home-made brownies from
her bicycle basket. For the best view of the festivities, arrive
at least half an hour before sunset. Alternatively take a sunset
sail on a tall ship like the Schooner Wolf and let the creaking of
the rigging evoke the ghosts of Key West’s seafaring past.
Hardly a weekend goes by without a special event or
festival. The tongue-in-cheek Independence Celebration on April 23
celebrates the island’s mock secession from the USA. Hemingway
Days is a week of nostalgia commemorating the author’s July 21
birthday with look-alike contests, short story competitions,
writing workshops and competitions. The October Fantasy Fest is a
lavish mardi gras incorporating costume balls, a Masquerade March,
street fair and a spectacular parade of floats. Old Island Days
runs from November to May and includes art and craft shows,
theatre, music, pageants and conch shell blowing contests.
Explore the waterfront restaurants, ramshackle wooden bars and
shops of the historic seaport district. Unmissable is a drink at
Sloppy Joe’s Bar where Ernest Hemingway spent many an afternoon
with his cohorts. Also walk through the quiet streets of the
predominantly wooden Old Town with its Victorian houses with
wraparound verandahs, pastel cottages and tall palms.
Many Key West residents were southern sympathizers during
the Civil War, but changed allegiance after waking one morning to
find their island occupied by Union forces. Take a ferry or
seaplane and visit the atmospheric Fort Jefferson in the Dry
Tortugas, a group of tiny islands 70 miles from Key West.
Fort Zachary Taylor on Key West has an impressive collection of
cannons and its Civil War Days event each February re-enacts
Hemingway wrote many of his best-known works in the
second-floor studio adjoining his former Key West home. The
colonial villa is now an evocative living museum honoring the
island’s most celebrated writer. While walking the grounds, make
friends with the many six-toed cats supposedly descended from
Hemingway’s own beloved felines.
The treacherous waters surrounding the keys made Key West
the mecca of wreck salvagers throughout the last century. In 1985,
following a 16 year search, Mel Fisher finally discovered the $400
million treasure of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum exhibits gold, silver, jewels,
religious artefacts, rare navigational instruments and weapons
from this and other local wrecks. If you prefer watersports
first-hand, skippers at the harbor will take you to world class
diving on living coral reefs and abundant deepwater fishing.
You’ll find the best Cuban sandwiches at little stands at
the island’s laundromats. Blue Heaven in the revitalized
Bahama Village serves great breakfasts, Caribbean specialities and
has roosters wandering between its tables. Key Westers not only
honor but also love to devour their favorite pink mollusk, conch
specialities including lime salad, spicy chowder and deep-fried
fritters. Join the conch fest and afterwards try Key Lime
Pie, the island’s signature dish, which should be yellow in
color and not green.
Even death does little to dampen the irreverence of Key
West residents. Visit the cemetery in the heart of the historic
district and read the humorous epitaphs which include “I Told
You I Was Sick”, “At Least I Know Where He’s Sleeping
Tonight” and “The Buck Stops Here”. The cemetery is
strangely picturesque with stone-encased caskets resting above
ground, shaded by tropical trees and circled by meandering paths.
is a freelance travel and lifestyles writer based in London. Born in Hong
Kong, his family moved to London when he was three. After graduating from
Cambridge University with a degree in physics, Martin worked initially in
high level positions in
financial services and capital markets. Martin has published a
number of books and articles and his topics frequent include his parchment for
hideaways destinations, adventure trips, and sports travel. (More
about this author).