Key West is the furthest island off the southernmost tip of Florida. Until 1912, when Henry Flagler completed his Overseas Railroad connecting the islands, it was just a small fishing village. When the railway was damaged beyond repair by a hurricane in 1935, Key West was again accessible only by boat, and that’s how the town’s most famous resident, Ernest Hemmingway, liked it. In the early 50s, the Overseas Highway was completed, opening Key West and the other keys to automobiles. Since then, Key West’s population has grown to 26,000 and the Keys have become a hugely popular winter tourist destination. There are even cruise ships that unload thousands of tourists each day.
Kate and I visited the Keys for the first time in 2013. That time we went to Hemmingway’s house, which was a very interesting cat-filled tour, and we ate seafood in the harbor and fish tacos at Hogfish Bar & Grill. This time we tried to see things we hadn’t seen before.
Our first day in, we walked all over the place, avoiding the heavy tourist areas. We checked out the “Little Whitehouse,” where President Truman spent a good portion of his Presidency. And we found a hidden gem of a place for lunch. Firefly is on a quieter side street and has great food. I had a fried green tomato sandwich that was so delicious I was reluctant to share. For dessert, we tried a Key Lime Cake that had been featured on a Food Channel show. Our waitress described all the behind the scenes mayhem that occurred during the show’s filming, and we decided the cake was worth the fuss.
We topped off the hot day with a swim in the ocean at Zach Taylor State Park. The surf was rough, so getting in was an act of bravery, but once beyond the breakers, the water felt so good we stayed in for a long time, just bobbing with the waves.
Another day we came back to experience the sunset festivities at Mallory Square. Every day, crowds come to watch both the setting sun and the street performers. We spent most of our time watching the Cat Man, who has been performing with his trained cats there for decades. This guy seems completely off his noodle. He stomps slowly around, setting up his equipment, repeating his favorite phrase in a thick French accent. “Hurry up! Take your time. Hurry up! Take your time.” Between orders and random proclamations, he bugs his eyes and lets out a maniacal laugh. When the cats come out, he grandly introduces them and puts them through the paces: jumping up on stands, “tightrope” walking along a narrow pole, weaving through his legs as he walks. He attempts to be in control, but really, the cats are cats. They follow his directions only when they feel like it, and he takes their detours in stride. When it was time for the finale – cats jumping through a flaming hoop – there wasn’t a single feline who was so inclined on this windy night. But we’d had a good show anyway. (A woman next to us gave us the scoop. The crazy stuff is all an act, and he’s put four kids through college with his tips.)
Our third trip into Key West was our favorite. We brought our bikes and simply rode around, mostly through the quieter neighborhoods. We went out on a large, nearly empty fishing pier and watched a man catch and release a small shark. We visited the AIDS memorial, where the names of AIDS victims are engraved in bronze. And a monument to an African cemetery, where we read about an illegal slave ship being captured by the U.S. Navy on its way to Cuba in 1860. 1,432 Africans were rescued, but 294 died within months and were buried in unmarked graves where West Martello Tower now stands. Surviving Africans were eventually returned to Africa, but to Liberia, not their native countries. We toured the Martello Tower. Initially built as a fort, it has been transformed by the Key West Garden Club to a beautiful garden.
On a friend’s recommendation, we rode to Blue Heaven, which is a fun outdoor restaurant in a courtyard with cats and chickens. They weren’t serving dinner just yet, and the menu was pretty pricy for us, so we moved on and found a great little Israeli café, just a few tables off the sidewalk, and enjoyed a delicious falafel and meatball sandwich.
One last drive into Key West brought us in for a play at the Waterfront Theater. “Mothers and Sons” was written by Terrence McNally, a well-known gay playwright, and another visitor at the Women’s Village had highly recommended it. It was about a mother who, ten years after losing her son to AIDS, comes to NYC to visit her late son’s partner. The partner is now married to another man and they have a young son. The script is a good mix of tension and humor and the actors, including the little boy, did a great job.
That was our first nighttime visit to Duval Street, which was quite a scene. Like New Orleans’s Bourbon Street, but more tropical. Live bands in every bar, loud tipsy tourists filling the sidewalks. Definitely not our scene, but interesting to drive through.
We love Key West, but it sure is crowded in the winter. I would have loved to have visited here back in Hemmingway’s day, when it was just a fishing village. Or even in the 70s or 80s, when tourism was just starting to pick up. It was nice to have our quiet little retreat to return to between our visits to this bustling town.
To see photos from 2013: