Key West

Given that we were in Key West at the beginning of February, I’d like to blame something sexy like “writer’s block” rather than the more pedestrian “laziness” for the long delay in getting this post out. But, yeah, “laziness” is a far better explanation.

Cleveland, at the beginning of February, was god awful cold: single digit temperatures, windchills down below -20F, Lake Erie frozen over out to snow-obscured the horizon. Florida, in our imagination, was blue sky and turquoise water, like we found in Turks and Caicos last year. But that trip was two months later and at a more southern latitude, and we had the bad luck of arriving in Key West when they were experiencing their worst weather in several months.

Of course, “worst weather” there means mid-50s to low-60s plus rain, so it’s uncomfortable wearing shorts: far better than Northeast Ohio at the time. We took advantage of that by doing the cultural attractions — museums, Hemingway’s house, simply walking around and seeing the town — during the first two days, which was a good thing in that it wasn’t hot and sticky during all the walking. Key West has a long cultural history (in contrast, T&C was primarily a salt works and pirate hideout, and is now mostly a beach resort and a budding center of off-shore banking), so there’s a lot to see. We had bought a book of tickets for a lot of these attractions, which reduced costs by a bit.

The main two things are Hemingway’s House and the Little White House. Hemingway’s House — situated near one of the lighthouses, so he could find his way home after a night of drinking at the Sloppy Joe’s bar among other places — is a good way to see a big Depression-era house in this town. Roaming throughout the house and its grounds are almost 50 polydactyl cats, all of them quite comfortable with the steady stream of tourists visiting their house. The Little White House is on the grounds of the old Navy base — now a condo development, because the port is too small for the Navy’s modern ships — used by Truman a vacation spot and out-of-Beltway office, with serious decision making being done over friendly late night games of poker (you can’t have any hint of gambling in the White House). You have to be part of a group to go through it, but the guides will give a very good talk about Truman’s time there, and its political significance (with some mention of the city’s front-line status during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the port being the USS Maine’s last American port of call before meeting its demise before the Spanish-American War). It’s still used occasionally by the government, so the Secret Service apparently forbids any sort of picture-taking there (in 2001, Sec. of State Colin Powell held a week of peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan).

The minor museums we went to were the local aquarium — where you can see feeding time for their sharks and living conch up close — and the Wrecker’s museum. Early Key West’s economy consisted of salvaging ships that wrecked on the poorly mapped Keys, and, for a time, before the system of light houses was installed and before steamships allowed the shoals to be bypassed, the city was the richest per-capita in America. The Wrecker’s museum is a small one, with artifacts from a recently excavated wreck, that was not fully salvaged because of technological constraints of the time (most of the ship was in water that was too deep for the pre-scuba age), and a modest replica of the old lookout towers used in the city to spot ships in trouble. You can get a decent view of the city from up there. There’s a thing also called “Pirate Soul”, which, I suppose, is edutainment, somewhat different from the hushed atmosphere of a proper museum. It’s a quick walk through, and they do have a couple of relatively unique artifacts there: a real pirate’s chest (complete with trick lock) and a real Jolly Roger from that time.

Having culture and history doesn’t mean that there isn’t a swath of the tackiest tourist traps running down the spine of the old town. The daily cruise ship port calls disgorge their passengers right into this maelstrom of souvenir shops, rude t-shirt emporiums, and Caribbean-themed stands that line Duval Street. I don’t believe the ships stay long enough to let those passengers partake of the numerous bars, though: you have to visit and stay in a hotel for that. There’s apparently live music at almost every establishment, every night, and we saw retirees stagger drunkenly down the street in a 55-and-better version of the bar crawl. I have no idea what Duval Street will look like during Spring Break.

We did take two boat excursions towards the end of the week. One was on a sail boat doing a snorkel/eco-kayak tour of some of the islands further west. The weather was improving, but still a bit too cold for snorkeling, though we did try. Unfortunately, the snorkel location wasn’t that interesting, so there was little incentive to tough out the colder water. The kayak tour was through the channels between mangrove growths: mostly plant life, with a talk on the natural history of how mangrove trees build up new land. We did see some birds as well as the shadow of a nurse shark cruising beneath our boats.

The other excursion was a day trip by fast catamaran to the Dry Tortugas, where we have the partially built Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era fortification and the largest masonry construction in the hemisphere. It’s the “Dry” Tortugas because there’s no source of fresh water in these islands, but the 19th Century Navy decided it was worth building a strong fortification and anchorage there, as it would have allowed naval control over Gulf of Mexico and the important American ports on the south coast. During the Civil War, enough construction was completed to allow its use as a Federal prison. It was never finished because new technology — steam ships — made the cost of finishing and maintaining a base in such an inhospitable location too high to be justifiable. It was used as a coaling station later, but, I suppose, the advent of an oil-fired Navy made the fort, again, obsolete. Now, it’s a bird sanctuary and snorkeling site, where you can swim around the entire fort (the water was great, though I didn’t go in: after the chilly experience from the day before, I was more interested in just walking around and taking pictures). Note that our perky guide, one of the catamaran crew, was kind of useless and not that well informed, though it apparently was only her second week or so in that job. The self-guided tour with the old Parks Service signs was approximately as useful.

Food-wise, we had good Cuban food and seafood throughout the trip. The best Cuban place was an off-the-beaten-path location. I think it was this one. There are apparently three main makers of Key Lime pie in town, and, being on vacation, we had pie every day we were there. The best one was on Front Street, just west of Duval Street. There was real meringue, and it was cut to order and served from a whole pie. The other two key lime pie locations both pre-sliced their pies, and used a whip cream fringe. And I think they may have started out frozen, from shortly after production, but I’m not sure. Certainly, the one with meringue wasn’t frozen; I don’t think you can freeze meringue well.

Being an old city, Key West has its share of ghost stories. We went on one of those ghost walks, and passed by the church’s graveyard (ghost of sea captain and his daughter), stopped near a funeral home (weird-but-disturbingly true story of Carl Tanzler), listened to stories of Robert the Doll in front of the Artist’s House B&B, and looked into the darkened windows of an abandoned theater. The guide (who, incidentally, during the day plays a wrecker at the Wrecker’s museum). I actually thought the tour would be a bit longer, and go to more places than we wound up doing. That night, the locations were within a few blocks of the La Concha hotel, from where we started. Maybe the Carl Tanzler story took a bit too long. There were also interestingly credulous people on the tour; at the church’s graveyard, we were encouraged to take many pictures with our digital cameras, because spirit lights apparently appear in a lot of these photos. Someone even showed the results to the guide, even those these are clearly artifacts recorded by cheap digital cameras with lots of flashes going off in a small area.

To get to Key West, we drove down US 1 from Miami, but that first trip over the causeways was in the evening and obscured by rain. It was sunny on the return trip — our best weather was on the day we left — and we had spectacular views of turquoise water surrounding the myriad islands along the route. On the mainland, we stopped at Coral Castle, the hand-placed collection of megaliths of one crazy and determined guy. Like Carl Tanzler, we see the results of unhealthy (but far more wholesome) obsession. Neat stuff, and a chance to touch sun-warmed coral rock before heading back to the frozen grounds at home.

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