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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Florida Keys & Everglades

By Rick Ferren

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Florida Keys & Everglades > The Lower Florida Keys > Key West Attractions

Key West Attractions

Sunset Celebration At Mallory Square

[Fig. 8(1)] There's one festival that takes place every evening: the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square. You haven't really been to Key West until you've taken part in the ritual. Crowds gather early on the old dock that's been recently dressed up with brick paving and other amenities.

It's easy to tell when it's time to head for the square. People all over Old Town will begin drifting in that direction. Before long the streets fill with people flowing into the square and out onto the dock.Click here for a new window with a larger version of this map.

The nightly entertainment includes the Iguana Man: In exchange for a tip you can pet his scaly green friend (decked out in a scarf and jaunty palm frond hat) and have your picture taken with it draped across your shoulders. The Cookie Lady pedals her bike and sings the wonders of her chocolate chips and fudge brownies.

Street performers, food vendors, and crafts dealers line the dock. Performing dogs, cats, and humans entertain the crowds. Jugglers twirl machetes and Indian clubs, fire-eaters and sword swallowers test their tonsils, mimes mime, musicians play, and a longtime performing tight rope walker mixes comedy with a well-polished balancing act. Everyone works for dollars dropped into a hat or can.

You can also buy jewelry, hand-painted T-shirts, straw hats, and watercolors, and refresh yourself with conch fritters, hot dogs, popcorn, fish sandwiches, and lemonade squeezed while you watch. In the vernacular of the 1960s, it's a happening, and it happens every night at sunset.

And as someone once said, "Everywhere else in the world, the sun is merely expected to rise, shine all day, and set again. In Key West, it's expected to perform." As the sun begins to touch the horizon, the crowd quiets a little and turns to the sea. Most take a moment just to watch nature at its finest. If it's been a good sunset, then the last of the blazing orange sliver of fire disappearing into the sea prompts a spontaneous applause. But if it's a cloudy night, no matter, another encore is just 24 hours away.

Audubon House And Tropical Gardens

[Fig. 8(3)] John James Audubon reportedly was a guest of Captain John H. Geiger, a retired boat pilot and wrecker, during his 1832 visit to Key West. Audubon makes no mention of his host in any of his writings, but nonetheless, the story persists that the world-renowned ornithologist did grace the stately white-frame mansion with his presence.

On one of his many voyages, Captain Geiger brought back from the West Indies the Geiger tree (Cordia sebestena), which fascinated him with its brilliant 1.5-inch trumpet-shaped orange-red blossoms and white berrylike fruit, and because it coincidentally had his own name. A magnificent Geiger in the front yard is one of Key West's most photographed sights.

In the 1950s, the house was in such deplorable disrepair, it was on the verge of being demolished for a parking lot. In stepped Key West native Mitchell Wolfson and his wife Frances, then of Miami, who restored it to nineteenth century glory and furnished it with period antiques and Audubon's complete, original Birds of America Double Elephant Folios. A film depicts many of the birds Audubon saw and painted during his Florida explorations. The restoration was the catalyst for an ongoing rejuvenation of Key West's Old Town.

City Cemetery

[Fig. 8(7)] This carefully tended 16-acre spot in the center of Old Town is one of the best places to get away from the crowds for some quiet contemplation. It's also one of the best birding spots in town. Some unusual sightings have occurred over the years, including one of the Antillean palm swift (Tachornis phoenicobia).

Open every day from sunrise to sunset, it's a popular place for Key Westers to walk, ride bikes, jog, and find a shady place under a tree or beside a tombstone to read and muse on the vagaries of life. Since 1847, the cemetery has been the final resting place for the town's illustrious citizens, eccentrics, ordinary citizens, a few beloved dogs, and even a pet Key deer.

An attractive, fenced plot, with a bronze statue of a sailor holding an oar, is the final resting spot for the seamen who died when the battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor in 1898. Although evidence, still not conclusive, pointed to an accidental explosion, William Randolph Hearst and other "yellow journalists" of the time blamed the Spanish Empire, which was then fighting Cuba's independence movement. The influential newspapers exploited the disaster, pushing the U.S. into the war with the Spanish Empire and netting Uncle Sam an empire of his own, which included Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Today, more than 70,000 graves fill the cemetery and spaces were long ago sold out. Bring your camera because you'll probably want a photo of BP Robert's crypt with the inscription, "I told You I was Sick."

Conch Tour Train

If this is your first visit to Key West, hop on the Conch Train, at the terminal near Sloppy Joe's and other locations, for a 90-minute orientation. The motorized tram, a series of open-sided cars pulled by a Jeep disguised as an old-timey locomotive, covers the town from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, the driver delivers a nonstop spiel about every street and landmark, with commentary on local personalities, scandals, gossip, and ongoing controversies—all salted with far too many corny jokes.

A lot of it can and should be tuned out, but the tour does give you an opportunity to see things you'd probably miss on your own, and places you might want to come back to another time. It operates nonstop every day. The same company also operates more comfortable Trolley Tours on the same route. The tram can be boarded at most of the major hotels and motels.

East Martello Museum And Art Gallery

[Fig. 8(12)] Built before the Civil War as part of Fort Zachary Taylor's coastal defenses, the brick and mortar building was never completed. By the late 1950s, when the local art and historical society began restoration, the structure was in a dreadful state of dilapidation. Now it serves as an excellent window on Key West's past. Permanent exhibits focus on pirates, Indians, Civil War artifacts, and the turtling, fishing, cigar making, and sponge harvesting industries. The art gallery displays a series of changing shows by local artists.

Jerry-rigged and flimsy rafts, some little more than blocks of styrofoam tied together, serve as reminders of the waves of Cuban refugees that for more then 30 years have been risking their lives in an against-all-odds attempt to float across the hazardous Straits of Florida. Many washed ashore in the Keys, others were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard and private vessels, and some didn't make it across.

Fort Zachary Taylor State Historic Site And Park

[Fig. 8(10)] Built in the 1840s as a link in Florida's coastal defense system, the massive brick fortress was named for President Zachary Taylor, who died in office in 1850. On the day Florida seceded from the Union, troops loyal to the Union seized the fort and held it throughout the war. New rifled cannons that developed during the war and were capable of knocking out chunks of bricks with every shot rendered the fort obsolete. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the fort was temporarily reactivated and its walls were lowered to accommodate installation of modern armaments.

It was subsequently abandoned, all but buried in debris and rubble, and largely forgotten for about half a century. Rediscovered and restored, it's now part of an 87-acre park administered by the Florida State Park System. The museum contains Civil War weaponry, including one of the country's largest cannon collections, and exhibits that tell the fort's history. Park rangers conduct guided tours. Many people come not for the history, but for the shaded picnic grounds, one of Key West's best beaches, and to celebrate the sunset from one of the best viewpoints on the island.

Ernest Hemingway House Museum

[Fig. 8(9)] Today a registered national historic landmark, the house was bought by Ernest Hemingway and his wife Pauline in 1931. Built in 1851 by Connecticut shipbuilder Asa Tift, from rock hewn from the grounds, the Spanish Colonial-style house was once the finest in town. However, the Hemingways and their two sons found it in disrepair and spent considerably more than their $8,000 purchase price making it a suitable living and creative space for one of the world's most esteemed authors.

In the midst of the Great Depression, when most of Key West was flat broke and bankrupt, the house was staffed by a team of servants and equipped with one of Key West's rare indoor bathrooms. While Hemingway was away on one of his adventures, Pauline had a 60-foot-long swimming pool built as a homecoming surprise. When Papa learned it cost the princely sum of $20,000—an amount guides always point out as the equivalent of about $230,000 today—his surprise purportedly turned into his famous fury. He took a penny from his pocket and shouted, "Here, take the last penny I've got!" throwing the coin onto the pool deck, where it's now impressed in cement for all to see.

The tiled "fountain" in the back garden is actually a urinal Hemingway ripped out of the men's room of the original Sloppy Joe's (now Captain Tony's) during a drunken brawl.

Between big-game hunting and fishing expeditions in the Keys, Africa, the American West, and elsewhere—and rowdy drinking bouts in Key West saloons—Hemingway stayed at his desk long enough to produce an astounding body of work, including A Farewell to Arms, The Green Hills of Africa, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and To Have and to Have Not, a novel (made into Humphrey Bogart's first film with Lauren Bacall with the famous line, "You know how to whistle, don't you? Just pucker up and blow") that showcased Key West's sad plight during the Great Depression.

To assure his concentration, and keep his family and legions of fans at bay, he built a catwalk from the main house to his studio above the former carriage house. And God help anybody who attempted to walk the catwalk while the great man was in the creative clouds. Speaking of cats, dozens of them, including many descended from his exotic six-toed clan, still have the run of the grounds.

Hemingway remained at the house until 1940, when he divorced Pauline and moved to Cuba. He owned the house until his suicide in 1961 in Ketchum, Idaho.

Papa's everlasting impression on his adopted city's psyche comes full flower during mid-July's Hemingway Days Festival, a 10-day blowout with a Caribbean street festival, fishing tournament, writers conference, walking tours, a 5K sunset run, readings of Hemingway's works, and the popular Papa Look-Alike Contest at Sloppy Joe's. One of the newest wrinkles is Sloppy Joe's "Running of the Bulls," a wacky no-bull takeoff on the annual event in Pamplona, Spain, which Hemingway immortalized in The Sun Also Rises.

Key West Aquarium

[Fig. 8(2)] Opened in 1934, this pleasant little aquarium is one of the few places in this adult Disney World that seems tailored for kids. At the Touch Tank, children will giggle as they pick up starfish, clams, oysters, shrimp, and squid and squeeze a squirt out of the sea cucumbers.

At regular intervals, guides feed the resident sharks. There is also a turtle pool, live coral, and a mangrove ecosystem. You can observe a smorgasbord of Keys marine life that resides in glass tanks: colorful, coral-eating parrotfish, porcupine fish, monkfish, sawfish, barracuda, turtles, squid, jellyfish, and many others. Fish feeding takes place at 11 a.m. everyday.

Key West Lighthouse Museum

[Fig. 8(8)] You can climb 88 steps to the top of Florida's third oldest brick lighthouse for one of the best views around of Key West, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico. When it was built in 1847, it was only 58 feet high. But as trees grew and buildings blocked the lightkeeper's view, the sentinel's height was increased to keep ahead, finally topping out at 78 feet. The light was turned off in 1969, and the lighthouse was deactivated. Displays in the museum include relics from the battleship Maine, which mysteriously exploded in Havana harbor in 1898. The current lens is from the Sombrero Lighthouse. The lighthouse keeper's quarters has undergone an award-winning restoration.

Charles "sonny" McCoy Indigenous Park

[Fig. 8(14)] Named for Key West's early 1980s mayor, the 3-acre city park contains over 125 species of trees and shrubs, purportedly the largest public collection of tropical native plants in the Keys. All are identified and include many endangered and rare plants such as torchwood, crabwood, satinwood, soldierwood, Darling plum, pitch apple, pond apple, lignum vitae, Jamaica caper, silver and buccaneer palms, satinleaf, silver buttonwood, and black ironwood.

Among the park's tropical fruit trees are sour orange, Spanish lime, breadfruit, governor's plum, and Key lime. Medicinal trees include stoppers—a group of six related trees Keys pioneers brewed into tea that stopped diarrhea.

All this plant life attracts migrating songbirds; buntings, tanagers, vireos, 20 species of warblers and wintering ducks and shorebirds have been spotted in the trees. The park is also a habitat for butterflies, including giant swallowtails, red admirals, queens, and zebra longwings. An observation platform offers views of salt marshes and bird life.

Wildlife Rescue of the Florida Keys is also on the grounds. This group of dedicated individuals cares for and rehabilitates injured birds and releases them back to the wild when possible. The park also houses the city nursery where native and imported plants are raised for landscaping around the city.

Mel Fisher's Maritime Heritage Society Museum

[Fig. 8(4)] A portion of the booty Fisher and his intrepid team of divers uncovered from the Spanish treasure ships Santa Margarita and Nuestra Senora de Atocha is displayed in a big stone building near the waterfront. The gold-laden sister ships were sent to the bottom by a hurricane on September 6, 1622, shortly after setting sail from Havana. The ships carried gold and silver bullion, magnificent jewelry, and a fortune in emeralds—a small fraction of the riches Spain was bleeding from the New World.

After long years of research and treasure hunting, Fisher's crew discovered the wrecks about 40 miles off Key West.

Expect to be stunned: This is a real treasure, one that even Long John Silver would be proud of. Chests of silver coins and gold bars, heavy gold chains you could pull a truck with, and emerald-encrusted gold jewelry are there. One of the more bizarre pieces is a poison cup, which has an embedded bezoar stone that changed colors when it came in contact with toxic substances. Weapons and navigational tools from the two ships are also on display.

You can also see a film about the discovery and the difficulties of locating and extracting sunken treasure. The Arbutus, one of Fisher's work vessels, sank in 1980, with no loss of life, in the Dry Tortugas. Much of the treasure discovered between 1970 and the early 1990s is still being cleaned and cataloged elsewhere in the huge building.

Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden

[Fig. 8(13)] Since 1994, artist and nature-lover Nancy Forrester and her friends have transformed her 1-acre parcel of land into one of Key West's natural treasures. The diverse assortment of trees, flowers, and plants includes many that are endangered and some no longer in existence in their native habitat. Under a deep green canopy, spangled by filtered sunlight, thrive hundreds of orchids, bromeliads, ferns, palms, and bog plants. The dirt paths skirt 150 species of palms—including equatorials from the Pacific Marquesas Islands, deep forest species from South America's Amazon Basin and Orinoco River, and near-extinct palms from Cuba.

Here and there are open spaces with garden chairs where you can sit and contemplate awhile. Squawking parrots and other tropical birds, in cages around the grounds, enhance the sensation that you have, indeed, wandered into a tropical rain forest. Wandering the paths, it's easy to get happily turned around and temporarily lose track of the way out. Unfortunately, like many of the Keys' wild areas, the garden is threatened by developers, hoping to turn this valuable property into more lucrative residential real estate.

Botanical prints are on sale in the art gallery.

Harry Truman's Little White House And Botanical Garden

[Fig. 8(5)] President Harry S Truman made the first of 10 winter vacation trips to Key West in 1946. His place of lodging, which came to be known as "The Little White House," was the former home of the commandant of the Key West Naval Base. Built in 1890, the two-story house is noted for its tropical gardens and wide verandas enclosed by wooden louvers.

Away from the presidential grind of Washington, and the prying eyes of the press and public, folksy Harry enjoyed strolling around town in outlandish Hawaiian shirts, chatting with locals and tourists, fishing, swimming, drinking bourbon, and playing the piano and poker with his cronies. Truman reportedly invited potential appointees to see how they held up under the pressures of the poker table.

Guides point out that Truman's middle initial is just that. His parents didn't give him a middle name, so to stifle questions about it, he adopted the letter S, which is correctly spelled without a period.

After touring the house, take a self-guided walk through the surrounding botanical garden. More than two dozen types of tropical trees, grasses, and shrubs have been identified and marked by the Key West Garden Club. They include bougainvillea and fishtail fern; fiji fan, coconut, Manila, Madagascar, thatch, and Washingtonia palms; monkey and St. Augustine grasses; avocado, banyan, gumbo-limbo, mahogany, royal poinciana, tropical almond, jacaranda, and Spanish lime trees.

Down-to-earth, man-of-the-people Harry S would probably be astonished to learn that his house and garden are now in the middle of a very expensive real estate community. In 1986, the Navy declared the 43-acre Truman Annex surplus property and sold it at auction. The Truman Annex Real Estate Co. has sold the former officers' homes to fortunate private citizens. Other buildings, including the U.S. Marine Hospital, built in 1844, have become pricey condominiums. Architecturally compatible new condos and townhouses have joined the housing mix.

Southernmost Point In The Continental United States

[Fig. 8(11)] A large black, yellow, and red missile-shaped buoy marks the most southerly place you can go and still be in the continental confines of the United States. "Continental" is the key word, because the actual most southerly place in all the 50 states is on the Big Island of Hawaii. "America Begins Here" is painted on the curb. It could just as well say, "America Ends Here."

Hundreds of tourists come everyday by Conch Train, bicycle, foot, and rental car to have their pictures taken by the buoy. Nearby vendors staff tables laden with conch shells and all manner of trinkets, T-shirts, and souvenirs fashioned from shells. They are here every day.

Oldest House Museum

[Fig. 8(6)] Built around 1829, and believed to be Key West's oldest house, the museum is a window on the Keys' early maritime history. Once the home of harbor pilot Captain Francis B. Watlington, you can learn the "Rules of Wrecking" and its history through photographs, ship models, and wrecking documents. A locator map shows the location of 50 nineteenth century wrecks.

The house still has a back porch cistern and a separate cook house—the town's last remaining outside kitchen. Kids are usually fascinated by the built-to-scale Victorian-style doll house with a mural of old Key West in the dining room. Be sure to take a stroll through the Rosemary Austin Memorial Garden.

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