Key West, The Historic, Exotic Island You Can Drive To

Part Two – Key West in the Florida Keys

  1. An Introduction To The Florida Keys
  2. Key West, A Different Sort of Place
  3. Where to Dine In The Keys (coming soon)
  4. Is It Time To Visit The Keys Again? (coming soon)

Key West is the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence that is the Keys. This town has been a magnet for adventurers, the famous and fortune seekers for well over a hundred years. Over the years it has attracted a number of the rich and famous including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Kelly McGillis, Jimmy Buffet, Calvin Klein, Shel Silverstein, Truman Capote, Winslow Homer, Ralph Lauren, Robert Frost, Kenny Chesney and Harry Truman (his winter White House). Not too shabby for a city of 20,000.

Its residents have been navy men, shrimpers, fishermen, cigar makers, treasure hunters and more than a few people seeking a place to get lost. Today Key West is known for history, bars, its Cuban heritage, bars, great seafood, bars, water sports, bars and more than a few traditions.

The Sun sets behind Sunset Key off Mallory Square
The Sun sets behind Sunset Key off Mallory Square

How many places do you know where they celebrate sunset with a festival every day? The sunset celebration is downtown at Mallory Square where musicians, jugglers, tightrope walkers, crafters, food vendors, locals and tourists gather to celebrate the end of another day as the Sun sets behind Sunset Key. It is such an institution that cruise ships that frequently dock next to Mallory Square are required to leave before sunset so they don’t block the view for the celebrants.

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Crowds and entertainers gather at Mallory Square to celebrate sunset

Getting around Key West has a number of odd options
Tourists cruising around Key West

The town has also become famous for a number of annual events like Fantasy Fest in late October an annual 10-day party in paradise for grown-ups. Started in 1979 by a group of Key West locals, the party was created to bring visitors to the island and has completely grown out of control. Pay attention to the word “adult” in the description, cause this town that gets pretty crazy on a normal day for Fantasy Fest is over the top. There are also Hemingway Days where Ernest look-a-likes come from all over for a chance to claim the title of Papa for a year. Check out the calendar and you will probably find very few weeks with nothing going on in this town.

Garden at the Audubon House
Garden at the Audubon House

Key west also has a number of worthy attractions and a few less so. John J. Audubon lived here and his home is maintained as a museum along with Hemingway’s house and Harry Truman’s Winter White House with all open to the public. There is also a really nice aquarium, Mel Fishers Maritime Museum, the Shipwreck Treasure Museum and believe it or not a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum.

Souvenir options by the bushel
Souvenir options by the bushel
Sloppy Joe's Bar
Sloppy Joe’s

In addition to the festivities there are a number of other things you will find Key West famous for. First is key lime pie, a delicacy invented in the keys. Be sure to take a bottle of key lime juice and a recipe with you when you leave. The city is home to a large Cuban population that brought their cigar making skills with them. There are a number of hand-rolled Cuban cigar makers in Key West. It is also famous for leather sandals (flip flops) and the oldest manufacturer is Kino located right downtown. Their leather sandals sell for $10 to $20. I’ve rarely gone to Key West without taking home a pair or two.

Key Lime Shop
Key Lime Shop

This town is also is famous for its seafood (fish, Florida lobster and shrimp), snorkeling and diving and its bars. Perhaps its most famous is Sloppy Joe’s on Duval Street where Ernest Hemingway hung out,  southwest of . Tony’s where Jimmy Buffet was a regular (it was actually the original location of Sloppy Joe’s) and Hogs Breath Saloon. Hogs Breath probably sells as many Tee Shirts as beers and who doesn’t want a T that says “Hogs Breath is Better than no Breath at All”.

Key West is also a U.S. Navy base with a Naval Air Station and research facilities. When I was in the Navy we stopped in Key West a few times. There were submarine pens right near downtown and evenings at Sloppy Joe’s was a study in white with wall to wall sailors in bright dress uniforms.

Market Square at Front and Wall
Ship Wreck Museum
Ship Wreck Museum

When visiting there are a number of opportunities to do some snorkeling or diving along with a trip to the Marquesas Keys with the Key West National Wildlife Refuge and the Dry Tortugas National Park between fifteen and thirty miles out to sea. Key West was also home base for Treasure Salvors the operation headed by Mel Fisher that found the wreck of the richest Spanish treasure galleon, the Atocha, just to the southwest  in fifty-five feet of water. Be sure and visit their museum.

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