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A DAY IN KEY WEST – A GUIDE TO WHAT TO DO AND SEE

BY

JON FLETCHER OF CRUISE HOLIDAYS UK

 

Many of the cruise lines call at Key West on their cruises to the Southern Caribbean.  It is a popular port of call for many cruise guests and one that many look forward to.  It is also a port of call that really is best seen on foot and explored independently.  For a small town it is really surprising how much there is to see and do. 

 

One of the first things you notice is that the cruise ships moor within walking distance of the town.  You will find that you are likely to be moored at one of the quays near the Old Town and Mallory Square. 

 

Key West is not like any other city in the United States or indeed anywhere else in the World.  It has a very relaxed and tolerant vibe to the place.  It is also place that has a certain pride and sense of independence that sets it apart from the rest of the United States.  Indeed in 1982 when the US Government set up a check point that effectively created a border patrol, supposedly to search for narcotics, the citizens of Key West responded by declaring their independence and set up the Conch Republic.  So you will see lots of references to the Conche Republic as you walk around Key West.

 

As you disembark from your cruise ship and walk along the quay you will enjoy a warm welcome from the local tourist board, which are really helpful and will happily tell you about the town and its many attractions. They are a great source of information.  You will also meet some great attraction and sightseeing tour operators as well. 

 

Once away from the quayside you will be right in the heart of the action, if action is the right word for this laid back town, in the Mallory Square area.  This is really the beating heart of the town.  You will find small boutiques and quirky shops that vie to tempt you.  Today the quayside area has been restored oved the last 20 years and is very picturesque with many of the warehouses and auction rooms turned into apartments.   It is hard to believe that in the 1800s this quayside was used to land salvage from the many wrecks and stored here and sold in the Auction houses.   Today the centrepiece of Mallory Square is the Old Custom House, affectionately known locally as “Old 91”.  It is a stunning red brick building built in a style adopted by many Federal buildings of the late 19th Century called Richardsonian Romanesque.  The building itself has a fascinating history.  Although originally built as a custom house, it also acted as a courthouse and post office.  The building was also the site of some important historical events including the Inquiry into the sinking of USS Maine in Havana in 1898.  In the 1930s Old 91 became the Headquarters for the US Navy in the Caribbean and Mexican Gulf.  Today it is the home to an award winning museum and Art Gallery and home to the Headquarters of the Key West Art and Historical Society. 

 

 

If you are interested in the maritime and wreckers history of the town there are two excellent museums that focus on the subject and both are within a few minute walk from Mallory Square.  The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum can be found at 200 Greene Street.  The museum focusses on the maritime history of Florida and the Caribbean.  It also has a collection focussing on the history of the Slavery Trade and the museum also has a conservation workshop so you you can watch the conservationist and restorers at work.  The other museum worth visiting if you are interested in maritime and wrecker local history is the Key West Shipwreck Museum which is just a 2 minute walk from Mallory Square at 1 Whitehead Street.  This friendly little museum which is housed in a replica of a 19th Century Warehouse built by the wrecker Asa Tift.  It tells the story of the wreckers using actors, films, and real artefacts from the 400 year history of the Town’s wreckers.  The museum is easy to spot with its watch tower used to spot ships in trouble.

 

Key West was the home to two world famous writers, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams and you can visit their homes.   Tennessee Williams wrote some of the great classic plays of American Theatre.  He was a regular visitor to the Town from 1941 and it is believed he wrote the final draft of A Streetcar Named Desire while he was staying at the La Concha Hotel in 1947, now the La Concha Hotel and Spa in Duval Street a few minute walk from Mallory Square.  Williams bought a house in 1950 at 513 Truman Avenue and lived there until his death in 1983.  His home is now a museum dedicated to his works and his life in the town.  The other great writer who lived in Key West was Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway first heard about Key West from his friend and fellow member of the Lost Generation, John Dos Passos.  The Lost Generation was a group of American artists in Paris in the 1920s. Ernest and his wife decided to set up home in Key West in April 1928.  One of the first things he did when he arrived was write the novel a Farewell To Arms in just 3 weeks, while he waited for his car to arrive at the Ford dealership.  The book was written in an apartment that was lent by the dealership above the showroom.  The couple soon began to make friends among the first were Charles and Lorine Thompson, who became lifelong friends.  It was Charles who taught Hemingway Big Game Fishing.  Ernest  and his group of friends, who included Charles Thompson, Joe Russell (Sloppy Joe) the owner of his favourite bar and Captain Eddie ‘Bra’ Saunders.  One of the things Hemingway loved about Key West was that he got to know a wide spectrum of people from rich business men to the fishermen who had not 2 cents to rub together and many became characters in his stories and books.  Indeed many of the characters in To Have and Have Not were based on people he knew from Key West.  After 2 years Pauline’s uncle bought them the house on Whitehead Street.  The house was built in 1851 in the Spanish Colonial style by the well known Key West Wrecker Asa Tift.  When the Hemingway’s moved in the house was really run down  and over the years they renovated it and added their own touches.  One such touch was the Pool.  The pool cost so much that Hemingway joked “Here, take my last penny”  He reached in his pocket and took out a penny and pressed it in the concrete.  If you visit the house you may well be asked to look for the Penny. Another thing you should look out for are the famous cats that have 6 toes.  It is thought they are descendants of cats from the ships. 

 

Key West has a number of great bars and restaurants.  Probably the best known is Sloppy Joe’s, originally owned and named after Hemingway’s friend Sloppy Joe.  Hemingway was a regular customer.  Officially the bar opened in it’s original location, now Captain Tony’s Saloon at 428 Greene Street.  The bar was originally built as an ice house and was used as a morgue, it also was a telegraph station in the 1890s and in 1912 it became a cigar factory.  A few years later around the time of World War 1 it became a saloon for the first time called the Duval Club and was notorious for being popular with gay men who propositioned the sailors from the local Naval Station which outraged the Naval commanders and led to the club’s demise when they declared the club out of bounds.  During prohibition it became a speakeasy owned by Joe Russell and the story goes that it was here Hemingway came to get his illicit bottles of whiskey from his friend.  The day prohibition ended is the official birth of Sloppy Joes.  When Sloppy Joes moved to its current location legend has it that they did not close.  The customers simply took their drinks and the furniture with them from the old bar to the new location across the way at 201 Duval Street and carried on drinking!  Apparently the move was because the landlord put the rent up and Joe refused to pay it.  Hemingway  moved with the bar and carried on drinking there until 1939 when he left his wife Pauline and moved to Cuba.  Today the bar is still a vibrant place and is always busy, being popular with bot locals and tourists alike.  To this day there is memorabilia dating back to Hemingway’s time such as the sail fish reputedly caught by the great Author and the baseball bat the bar man used to keep order with.  The bar is I am pleased to say a fantastic live music venue and serves great food.  I loved the eponymous Sloppy Joe sandwich and fries.  It really did hit the spot especially washed down with a nice cold craft beer.  Other great bars you may like to consider is the Hog’s Breath Saloon at 400 Front street, well known for its live music.  The huge Bourbon Street Pub at 724 Duval Street is a gay friendly bar with a very pleasant garden complete with a hot tub!

 

 

There are some great places to grab lunch in Key West and you needn’t pay an arm and a leg for the privilege to eat like a local.  Head to Sandy’s Café in M and M Laundry at 1026 White Street this café is a local’s favourite it was founded in 1984 by Sandy Santiago Sr and his son sandy Santiago Junior.  This is the place to get great Cuban Sandwiches and Cuban Coffee.   If like me you are a sucker for Key Lime Pie then you should head for the Rooftop Café at 310 Front Street, this fine dining restaurant is also the home of the best Key Lime pie in town.  However if it is Key Lime Ice Cream you crave on the way back to the ship you cannot go far wrong calling at Carpe Diem .   Their homemade Key Lime Ice Cream is to die for!  So good I had seconds!!!  Two other places foodies must not miss are the Key West Winery at 103 Simonton Street.  The winery specialises in unusual wine made from tropical fruits and right next door is the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery at 105 Simonton St.  This is one of the few attractions offering a free guided tour.

 

One of the most famous buildings in Key West is the Little White House it was built in 1890 as a Naval Officer’s residence.  But it rose to prominence when Harry Truman used it as his winter residence.  He spent 175 days of his time in office in Key West and it is believed whilst there he  faced many of the great issues of his day. 

A short walk from the Little White House you will find the once infamous neighbourhood of Bahamas Village.  Originally it was the home of the Cuban and Bahamian population and was known for its cigar factories and rundown buildings, but over recent years it has been gentrified and as a result became a centre for high class restaurants.  One of the most popular things to see in this area is the southernmost point of Continental United states of America.  This is marked by a colourful buoy, which is a popular photo opportunity.

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As you can see there is so much to do in Key West.  This is one port of call where you will not be at a loss for things to do.  You will never be bored on a visit to Key West and IO guarantee you will have some happy memories of your day in Key West. 

 

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