Hit the Spot
San Diego Union Tribune, 4-17-2005
Hit the spot
Visitors can't but help soak up the Key West spirit
April 17, 2005
ANDY NEWMAN PHOTOS
Snorkelers (above) love the Keys' clear water.
Something happens when you arrive in Key West. You get off the plane or step out of the car, and one of Jimmy Buffett's phrases come to mind, even if you don't know his music: "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes." When you go "down island," the balmy breezes steeped in tropical fragrance sweep over you. Immediately you sense the island spirit seducing your every fiber, and the Caribbean frame of mind begins.
While most people think of Key West as part of Florida and the southernmost city in the continental United States, make no mistake about it: Key West is the Caribbean in nearly every way. In fact, it's closer to Cuba (90 miles) than it is to Miami (165 miles).
A colorful history has painted the island with numerous faces. How you choose to spend your time in Key West will determine which Key West face you see. If you have time, you can engage in every activity the island offers, from gallery hopping to sailing to visiting a baby conch farm to sampling every key lime pie in town to parasailing, snorkeling, scuba diving and fishing.
Or you can just hang out in the illustrious bars, a popular pastime. Key West claims more bars per capita than any city in the nation. Even if you participate in only one or two activities, you will experience the essence of Key West and may understand why so many former visitors have never gone home.
Spanish explorers named the island Cayo Hueso, or Bone Island, for the many skeletal Indian remains they found scattered on the beaches. English speakers Anglicized the name to Key West. But the original name still resonates: broken corral resembling bones covers beaches and keeps the name alive.
Although you can start your visit on Duval Street, the town's commercial epicenter and busiest thoroughfare lined with bars, restaurants, T-shirt shops, galleries and boutiques, you can get a better sense of the place by hoofing it, renting a bike, scooter or golf cart and exploring the many streets lined in Conch-style, Victorian-era homes. Or you can start by glimpsing Key West from the outside in. Several water-sport companies offer guided, two-hour tours on Jet Skis encircling Key West and Stock Island, jutting about mangroves and sea life, resting on tranquil sandbars, and zooming through canals frequented only by residents.
Countless ships sunk off Key West's shores. Wrecking (salvaging of the ships) made Key West the wealthiest city per capita in the 1830s. For those curious about the island's storied history, visits to the town's Shipwreck Historeum detailing the wrecking industry that built Key West, and Mel Fisher's Maritime Museum, chock full of Spanish treasures from the sunken galleons of the 1622 fleet that went down during a hurricane, provide plenty of historical intrigue.
To get a physical sense of early Key West, stop into the oldest house, built in 1829, just eight years after the treaty with Spain ceded East Florida and the Keys to the United States for unpaid debts. The New England Bahama style house stands 1½ stories. The builder, Richard Cussans, migrated to Key West after Commodore David Porter and his mosquito fleet eliminated pirates who terrorized the islands.
For a look at a different face, the area's darker side, take one of the popular walking ghost tours. If you don't believe in ghosts, you might by the end of the tour. Plenty of people will tell you that ghosts permanently inhabit Key West and like their mortal counterparts, have no intention of leaving.
One question most visitors ask within minutes of walking around town is, "what's with all the chickens?" Hens and roosters are as common as pigeons in other cities, with the same free range, nesting in trees and buildings, meandering down streets, and noshing on leftover food. Chickens attained preferential status when cock fighting was deemed illegal in the mid-20th century. Now protected, their numbers have grown exponentially. Visitors will encounter the gypsy chickens everywhere from gardens to the library and post office to the Truman Annex of elegant homes surrounding President Harry Truman's Little White House.
The only place in town chicken-free is probably Ernest Hemingway's House, which overlooks the island's lighthouse. Sixty cats, many of them polydactyl (six-toed), reside on the premises, all progeny of Hemingway's original polydactyl, given to him by a sea captain. The privately owned museum feeds and cares for the cats as a museum expense.
A visit to the expansive house and tropical garden illustrates another face of Key West, that of unbound creativity. The island inspires artists and writers alike. Hemingway lived and wrote at the home for more than 10 years, during one of the Nobel Prize winner's most prolific writing periods.
Trying new cuisine is always an irresistible vacation pastime, and Key West's food face does not disappoint. From authentic Cuban Enchilado Mariscos (fish stew) at El Siboney to searing Pepper Shrimp at Jamaican Me Hungry, to the Mango Crab Cakes with Key Lime Mustard Sauce at Turtle Kraals ,to the Schooner Breeze, a marriage of five flavored rums at the Schooner Wharf Bar in the Historic Harbor District, you'll eat well and rest easy.
Boating takes on serious meaning here, but for a real treat, venture out on one of the tall-ship schooners. The 130-foot Western Union was built on the island in 1939 and serves as a testament to the area's shipbuilding heyday. Or consider sailing on the America, a 139-foot replica of the original Schooner America commissioned by the New York Yacht Club for the 100 Guinea Cup in 1851. The boat won by a huge margin and earned the honor of having the race renamed the "America's Cup".
Sipping champagne or helping to raise the sails on this historic replica during a sunset cruise takes passengers back to an era long since forgot, sparking a gentle reverie.
And perhaps that's why so many visitors become permanent residents. Life in Key West allows people to live in a mind-set like no other. Locals call it the Key West state of mind. Visitors call it paradise found.
For tourism information on the Florida Keys, www.fla-keys.com; (800) 352-5397 (FLA-KEYS)
Jeffree Wyn Itrich is a San Diego writer.