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.
Relive Key West History Through Island’s Many Museums
KEY WEST, Florida Keys — The colorful history of Key West incorporates shipwreck treasures and artifacts, renowned artists, literary legends, a cigar-making heyday and a vibrant past as a bustling seaport. The area’s historic and cultural richness is preserved, spotlighted and celebrated in the island city’s many museums.
For example, Key West is home to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, founded by the legendary shipwreck salvor who died in 1998. The museum holds the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere — most of them excavated from the waters around the island city.
Visitors can view gold, silver, emeralds and priceless artifacts from the shipwrecked Spanish galleons Nuestra Señora de Atocha, wrecked off Key West in a 1622 hurricane and discovered by Fisher in 1985 after a 16-year search, and Santa Margarita.
Also on display are artifacts from the English merchant slave vessel Henrietta Marie, which sank in 1700 near the Marquesas Keys and was salvaged by Fisher’s crew. In addition, a second-floor gallery hosts a new maritime exhibition each year.
Located at 200 Greene St., the museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, visit www.melfisher.org or call 305-294-2633.
Just a few steps away stands another structure commemorating a historic highlight: the period in 1832 when artist and ornithologist John James Audubon visited Key West and the Dry Tortugas, sighting and drawing 19 new species for his monumental “Birds of America” folio. It is believed that many of those detailed paintings were conceived in the garden of the 205 Whitehead St. property now known as the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens.
Today the 19th-century home, built by ships’ carpenters for harbor pilot and shipwreck salvager Captain John Geiger — whose family occupied the house for approximately 100 years — is a museum that showcases both the Audubon connection and Key West’s early years. The antique-filled house contains nearly 30 first-edition Audubon works and adjoins a gallery featuring 500 Audubon lithographs.
The gardens surrounding the Audubon house, encompassing nearly an acre, contain a breathtaking variety of tropical foliage, native plants and exotics. In the front yard stand three Geiger trees, one of which appears in Audubon’s painting of the white-crowned pigeon.
The property is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.audubonhouse.com or call 877-294-2470 or 305-294-2116.
Key West’s Cuban heritage is represented by the San Carlos Institute, 516 Duval St. An affiliate to the Smithsonian Institution, the San Carlos was founded in 1871 to preserve Cuban culture and promote the freedom of Cuba. In 1892, it was from the institute that Cuban patriot José Marti united exiles for his drive for Cuba’s independence.
Today, the San Carlos serves as a museum, library, art gallery, theater and more. The institute is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, call 305-294-3887.
A few blocks away stands the Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum, 1 Whitehead St., dedicated to aspects of the wrecking or shipwreck salvage industry that was the cornerstone of the island’s early economy. The museum combines actors, films, laser technology and actual artifacts from the shipwrecked Isaac Allerton, which sank in Keys waters in 1856. Guests can also lift a salvaged silver bar that dates back to 1656.
Visitors meet Asa Tift in his 1856 wreckers’ warehouse, enjoy a fascinating video on the wrecking industry and hear tales from the families who made their fortunes in wrecking. Those who climb to the top of the 65-foot observatory can even scan the reefs for wrecks just as Key West’s 19th-century captains did.
The Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum is open from 9:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For more information, visit www.historictours.com/keywest or call 305-292-8990.
A pivotal era in Key West’s political history is showcased at the Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum, 111 Front St. on Truman Annex. Truman, who visited Key West 11 times during his presidency, liked the island so much that he once wrote his wife, “I’ve a notion to move the capital to Key West and just stay.” The Navy base’s commandant’s quarters, a roomy West Indian structure, became his Little White House.
Today, docents guide visitors through the meticulously restored residence, which contains items including the original piano and poker table used frequently by the former president. The house also has hosted former presidents William Howard Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Nearby, at 938 Whitehead St. stands the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters Museum. Completed in 1847, the lighthouse guided mariners through the treacherous Key West waters until it was decommissioned in 1969. The only U.S. lighthouse within city limits, it stands beside the keepers’ quarters building — and museum visitors can step back in time to learn the stories of the men and women who kept the light burning.
The restored keepers’ quarters contains personal effects, diaries, artifacts, photographs and other items relating to the era of the lighthouse keeper. Climb the 88 steps to the top of the lighthouse, see the 12-foot "first order" Fresnel lens and get a great view of Key West.
The Key West Lighthouse Museum is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.kwahs.com/lighthouse.htm or call 305-294-0012.
Fort East Martello Museum, 3501 S. Roosevelt Blvd., provides another intriguing view into Key West’s heritage and character. Dating back to 1862, the brick fortress-turned-museum contains exhibits highlighting the intriguing, eclectic and haunted side of the island. The fort features vaulted brick ceilings, curved walls and a central lookout tower for viewing the Atlantic.
Particularly notable are Cuban-American folk artist Mario Sanchez's colorful wood carvings depicting Key West in the early 1900s, Stanley Papio's irreverent found-object art, and artifacts from the city's haunted past including Robert the Doll.
Fort East Martello Museum is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. For more information, visit www.kwahs.com/martello.htmor call 305-296-3913.
The Key West Museum of Art & History is located in Key West’s historic Custom House at 281 Front St. near Mallory Square. One of the finest examples of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in the country, the Custom House opened in 1891 and housed Key West's first post office.
It's now filled with permanent and touring exhibits of art and history on two floors in seven elegant galleries. Permanent exhibitions include an exploration of Ernest Hemingway’s life in Key West and "Speedway to Sunshine, Flagler's Ocean Railway," showcasing the Florida Keys railroad called the eighth wonder of the world upon its completion in 1912.
Also paying tribute the railroad and its founder, Henry Flagler, is the Flagler Station Over-sea Railway Historeum, located at 901 Caroline St. in a bright yellow wooden building in the island’s Historic Seaport. The structure is the Maggie Atwell House, relocated from Big Pine Key, and inside visitors experience an authentic Florida East Coast railroad car filled with memorabilia and photographs. Other attractions include an audio tour presenting authentic eyewitness accounts from passengers riding the railroad.
Flagler Station is open daily 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.flaglerstation.net or call 305-294-5161.
People can learn about Key West’s unique turtle-fishing industry at the Key West Turtle Museum at 200 Margaret St. in the Historic Seaport. The museum sits on a former waterfront turtle-soup cannery next to the one-time turtle holding pens, or kraals. It details the story of Key West’s centuries-long relationship with sea turtles.
Highlights include numerous historic artifacts and photographs relating to the island’s turtling business, and archaeological materials excavated from the waters surrounding the museum.
The Key West Turtle Museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with educational tours offered by appointment. For more information, call 305-294-0209.
As well as unique industries, Key West is home to the oldest house in South Florida, dating back to 1829. The Oldest House Museum & Garden at 322 Duval St. is an homage to builder Richard Cussans who, it is suspected, moved the home from its original location on Whitehead Street to its current location in 1836. The Watlington family, headed by Captain Francis Watlington, lived in the home from the late 1800s until the last of the family died in 1972. The Old Island Restoration Foundation acquired the home in 1975 and still manages the property.
The interior is filled with original furnishings, ship models, period and wreckers’ documents. The gardens on the grounds feature benches and the only surviving cook house in South Florida.
The Oldest House Museum & Garden is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday. For more information, visit www.oirf.org or call 305-294-9501.
Visitors interested in military history can tour a new Key West museum: a historic U.S. Coast Guard cutter that, on its retirement in 1988 after 52 years of service, was the oldest serving and most decorated naval vessel.
The 327-foot Ingham, launched in 1936, is one of only two preserved Secretary-class cutters. According to Coast Guard historical records, it is the only cutter ever awarded two Navy Presidential Unit citations.
The Ingham served during World War II, the Korean conflict and Vietnam War. During the 1980 Cuban Mariel boatlift, the Ingham performed search-and-rescue missions in Florida Keys and South Florida waters that saved many Cuban lives.
Ingham visitors can tour areas ranging from the ship’s radio room and engine room to the mess deck and commanding officer’s quarters. Artifacts on display in the exhibit room include code bags for transporting classified messages, telescopes, weapons, uniforms and helmets, navigational equipment and photographs documenting Ingham’s construction and long years of service.
A registered National Historic Landmark, the Ingham is docked on Key West’s Truman Waterfront. For more information, visit www.uscgcingham.org/ or call 305-292-5072.
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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