KEY WEST, Florida Keys — Located closer to Cuba than to Miami, Key West is Florida’s independent and irreverent southernmost subtropical paradise. A unique confluence of history, climate, natural beauty, cultural diversity, architecture and unabashed romantic appeal make the island a destination far removed from the everyday world.
Key West’s balmy climate, historic structures and anything-goes ambiance have long provided a refuge for writers, artists and free spirits seeking a place to soothe and satisfy the mind, body and soul.
Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost and Jimmy Buffett are just a few of the famous who discovered solace and inspiration in the island city. So too did Bahamian wreckers, commercial fishermen, spongers and Cuban cigar makers.
In fact, Key West’s Bahamian and Cuban heritage is evidenced throughout the island in restaurants and cigar shops, museums and accommodations.
For intimate lodging, the island provides a bounty of bed and breakfasts with architectural qualities evoking eras past, while lavish resorts offer modern services and amenities amid grander surroundings.
Residents and visitors to the island actively participate in sightseeing, outdoor and maritime activities, and shopping by day, and then become part of the sunset celebration held each evening at Mallory Square, when tightrope walkers, jugglers and animal acts strive to top a more captivating performer — the fiery sun settling into the Gulf of Mexico.
Visitors to Key West can pet a shark, explore a curiously comforting cemetery, tour Hemingway’s former home and other attractions, discover the riches of a spectacular salvage expedition and enjoy exceptional cuisine. Island beaches offer ample sunning and watersports opportunities, while beneath the surrounding turquoise and cobalt waters, historic shipwrecks, a living coral reef and myriad marine plants and animals entice those eager to explore.
For anglers, billfish beyond the reef and permit and tarpon on the flats are just a few of the local game fish that offer challenging displays of strength.
At night, the stars illuminate assorted entertainment opportunities including jazz clubs, piano bars, drag shows and saloons. Theatrical stagings at area playhouses feature Broadway-quality performances.
The island is accessible via Key West International Airport, which is serviced by American/American Eagle, Delta/Express Jet, United/Silver Air, JetBlue/Silver Air, US Airways and others.
Key West also can be reached by flying into Miami International Airport and driving from the mainland down the Overseas Highway — designated an All-American Road under the National Scenic Byways program — or by ferry from points on Florida’s west coast.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN KEY WEST
Audubon House & Tropical Gardens, 205 Whitehead St.; 305-294-2116, www.audubonhouse.com. This restored historic home contains original Audubon engravings commemorating the artist and ornithologist’s 1832 visit to Key West, when he sketched 18 new species for his “Birds of America” folio.
Bahama Village, Petronia Street. This revitalized neighborhood showcases Key West’s Caribbean heritage through a Bahamian marketplace, shops and ethnic restaurants.
Conch Tour Train, 303 Front St.; 305-294-5161, www.conchtourtrain.com; and Old Town Trolley Tours, Mallory Square; 305-296-6688, www.trolleytours.com/key-west/. Both tour operations offer guided and informative expeditions throughout Key West, departing every half-hour.
Curry Mansion, 511 Caroline St.; 305-294-5349, www.currymansion.com. An elaborate Victorian structure built on the site of the homestead of Florida’s first millionaire, Curry Mansion now serves as a historical house museum showcasing an era of elegance. An inn is situated on the property and the structure is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Custom House Museum, 281 Front St. near Mallory Square; 305-295-6616, www.kwahs.com. Operated by the Key West Art & Historical Society, the museum showcases fine art and historic collections, and is a vital repository for artifacts related to the history and culture of the Florida Keys. The museum is located in Key West’s restored Custom House building and its grounds feature sculptures by renowned American artist Seward Johnson.
Fort East Martello Museum, 3501 S. Roosevelt Blvd.; 305-296-3913, www.kwahs.com. This historic military fort is filled with unique artifacts and memorabilia including Robert the Haunted Doll, along with the works of renowned local artists Mario Sanchez and Stanley Papio.
Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, 907 Whitehead St.; 305-294-1136, www.hemingwayhome.com. The late author’s home and second-story writing studio offer a glimpse into American literary history. While living here, Hemingway wrote some of his most notable works including “To Have and Have Not,” which is set in Key West.
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, 35 E. Quay Road, accessed through Truman Annex on Southard Street; 305-809-4750, http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/eco_discovery.html. The free-admission center features interactive exhibits showcasing the underwater and upland habitats that characterize the Keys, with an emphasis on the United States’ only living contiguous barrier coral reef. Highlights include a walk-through version of the Aquarius Undersea Lab, the world’s only operational underwater laboratory, and the Mote Marine Laboratory living reef exhibit.
Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park; www.nps.gov/drto/historyculture/fort-jefferson.htm. This Civil War–era fort is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, incarcerated for providing medical assistance to President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. The centerpiece of pristine Dry Tortugas National Park, located approximately 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, Fort Jefferson is accessible via ferry and by seaplane.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, accessed through Truman Annex on Southard Street; 305-292-6713, www.floridastateparks.org/forttaylor. Constructed between 1845 and 1866, the fort remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War and was later used during the Spanish-American War. The fort’s collection of Civil War–era seacoast cannons is the largest in America. The state park features a popular beach, picnic tables, snorkeling and fishing.
Harry S. Truman Little White House, 111 Front St.; 305-294-9911, www.trumanlittlewhitehouse.com. The late United States president’s former tropical retreat, now Florida’s only presidential museum, includes family quarters, a poker porch, living and dining rooms open to the public. As well as being Truman’s working headquarters, the house also has hosted former presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Historic Seaport at Key West Bight, from Greene to Grinnell streets at the north end of the island. Some 100 land- and sea-based waterfront businesses bring Key West’s seafaring heritage to life. Along a half-mile harbor walk are shops, restaurants, bars and a working marina that is home to tall ships, ferries and catamarans that provide dive, snorkel and sunset cruises.
Key West Aquarium, 1 Whitehead St.; 305-296-2051, www.keywestaquarium.com. Showcasing the diverse marine life that inhabits the waters of the Florida Keys, the aquarium offers guided tours, a touch tank and daily turtle and shark feedings.
Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, 1316 Duval St.; 305-296-2988, www.keywestbutterfly.com. One of only three major butterfly facilities in Florida, the conservatory features a 5,000-square-foot glass-domed tropical butterfly habitat. Visitors can observe hundreds of butterflies from 50 to 60 species, a pair of graceful flamingoes and numerous species of colorful exotic birds in the habitat, as well as learn about butterflies’ role in the natural world.
Key West Cemetery. Look for creative headstones that read, "I Told You I Was Sick" and “Devoted Fan of Singer Julio Iglesias.” The cemetery also contains the resting place of Hemingway’s friend and fishing captain, “Sloppy Joe” Russell, and sparring partner Kermit “Shine” Forbes. Another plot pays homage to sailors killed in the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine.
Key West Golf Club, mile marker (MM) 5 bayside, Stock Island; 305-294-5232. The Florida Keys’ only public 18-hole golf course, the Key West Golf Club features a clubhouse, pro shop and instructional programs.
Key West Lighthouse Museum, 938 Whitehead St.; 305-294-0012, www.kwahs.com. Erected in 1847, the lighthouse guided mariners until it was decommissioned in 1969. Both the keeper’s quarters and the lighthouse have been restored. Visitors can walk 88 steps to the top for a wonderful view of the city.
Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, 5210 College Road; 305-296-1504, www.kwbgs.org. This large arboretum, garden, wildlife refuge and educational center features flora native to South Florida, Cuba and the Caribbean. Visitors can stroll the garden, the only frost-free tropical moist forest garden in the continental United States, to view tropical fruit trees, fragrant plants and palms, spices and herbs, champion trees, butterflies and birds.
Key West Turtle Museum, 200 Margaret St.; 305-294-0209. Visitors can learn about turtles and their preservation, and Key West’s early turtling industry, at this unique museum in the island city’s Historic Seaport. Information also is provided about the modern-day perils turtles face.
Mallory Square, Mallory Pier. Street performers take center stage here each evening as visitors flock to Key West’s internationally renowned sunset celebration.
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene St.; 305-294-2633, www.melfisher.org. This museum showcases the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere, including the treasure of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
The San Carlos Institute, 516 Duval St.; 305-294-3887, www.institutosancarlos.org. Founded in 1871 by Cuban exiles, the San Carlos functioned as an educational, civic and patriotic center. In a historic 1892 speech from the building, Cuban patriot Jose Marti united the Cuban exile community and launched his drive for Cuba’s independence. Today the San Carlos features exhibits related to the history of Cuba and Florida’s Cuban-American population, and its theater hosts many special events and programs.
Southernmost House, 1400 Duval St.; 305-296-3141, www.southernmosthouse.com. Built in 1896 overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the house epitomizes the grandeur of the island city’s historic heyday. The frequently photographed landmark now is a popular inn.
Southernmost Point, Whitehead and South streets. A larger-than-life buoy marks the southernmost spot in the continental United States — only 90 miles from Cuba. It’s the setting for a Kodak moment for virtually every visitor to Key West.
Tennessee Williams Exhibit, 513 Truman Ave., 305-842-1666; www.twkw.org. For more than 30 years, internationally renowned playwright Tennessee Williams lived in a Key West cottage. His Key West years, beliefs and legacy are chronicled in a free-admission exhibit that includes personal photographs, memorabilia, first-edition plays and books, a typewriter Williams used in Key West and more. The exhibit is housed behind the Key West Business Guild Visitor Center.
Tennessee Williams Theatre, 5901 W. College Road, MM 5 bayside, Stock Island; 305-296-1520, www.tennesseewilliamstheatre.com. Named for the playwright who made his home in Key West for decades, the spacious theater is located on the campus of the Florida Keys Community College. Its offerings include locally produced and traveling stage productions as well as concerts staged by Keys musical organizations.
West Martello Tower/Joe Allen Garden Center, 1100 Atlantic Blvd.; 305-294-3210, www.keywestgardenclub.com. The never-used Civil War-era fort overlooking the Atlantic Ocean is now home to the Key West Garden Club. One of Key West’s most tranquil spots, the fort houses a beautiful garden featuring indigenous plants, rare palm trees and a butterfly garden.
photo: Kevin Lazarski of Dover, Wisc., photographs his wife, Dina, and sons, Jacob and Jordan, at the Southernmost Point marker in Key West, Fla. The icon is one of the most photographed landmarks in the Florida Keys and delineates the area in Key West as the southernmost point in the continental United States. Photo by Rob O'Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau
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