The end of Route 1 . . . quirky and laid back . . . Hemmingway’s hangout . . . stupendous sunsets. We had to return. Our time here last year had been too short. It was, simply, just a great place to be. We added a couple more days this time around . . . giving us a chance to do more than tour. This time we would get more into the flow, taking it slower, soaking it up, kicking back and hanging out.
Tiki huts play a prominent role down in the keys. The Overseas Highway is lined with them for the entire 100+ mile stretch. What better way to get into the swing of the true nature of the Florida Keys than making one of them our first stop. The Islamorada Fish Company fit the bill perfectly.
Boyd’s Campground lies on the outskirts of Key West. It is one of the few places near town where the big rigs can park. We had a site waiting for us and it fit our needs perfectly.
The first immigrants to Key West came from the Bahamas, arriving in increasing numbers after 1830. After the American Revolution, many loyalists migrated to Key West through the Bahamas. Being more affluent and educated than the earlier settlers, they called those people “conchs” because shellfish was a prominent staple of their diet. Today, it is common for Key West to be referred to as the Conch Republic . . . there is even an “official” flag having that designation.
Major industries in Key West in the early 19th century included fishing, salt production, and most famously, salvage. In 1860, wrecking made Key West the largest and richest city in Florida and the wealthiest town per capita in the U.S. A number of the inhabitants worked salvaging shipwrecks which were common in the reefs off the shoreline. The town was noted for the unusually high concentration of fine furniture and chandeliers which the locals used in their own homes after salvaging them from wrecks. In the late 1800s, salt and salvage were declining as industries, but Key West gained a thriving cigar-making industry. Many Cubans moved to Key West during their country’s unsuccessful war for independence in the 1860s and 70s. By 1889 Key West was the largest and wealthiest city in Florida. Yet after this period of prosperity, the isolation of Key West led to a prolonged recession. Ironically, that fate actually sealed its fortunate fate. Homes and other structures from that boom period were frozen in time. After decades of decline, its architectural treasure trove was rediscovered, and slowly began to be restored and renovated. And that is the foundation for the town’s character and charm today.
Duval Street might be the heart of Key West, but its soul and flavor is really found in the many arteries leading away from that main drag. The homes built along those quiet and tree-enshrouded streets reflect what we think is the true and historical nature of the city. That is where we would spend much of our time.
Biking is the best and certainly the most practical method of navigating Key West’s streets. In fact, many of those streets have a designated bike lane. Locals have learned the secret, and there are many bike shops that rent out bicycles for the visitors. We brought our own, and soon learned how to navigate easily from place to place. Taking our time, we enjoyed the scenery along the way.
The homes of Key West have a diversity of styles, but they also have certain things in common. They are faithfully restored, due in part to strict restoration guidelines. Like other facets of Key West, diversity is prominent. There are the simple shotgun homes like in New Orleans—usually called cigar maker’s houses. There are the distinctive Eyebrow Houses that have their roofs extending down over the second floor windows onto classic porch columns. This style is unique to Key West, not being found anywhere else. The Conch Houses are a combination of Victorian, Bahamian and New England styles all blended together. The fact that all these homes have survived hurricanes, termites’ neglect, and the Great Depression are a testament to the quality workmanship of the shipbuilders and their descendants who built these beautiful treasures and the owners, past and present, who have preserved them for subsequent generations to enjoy and appreciate.
And appreciate them we did. A big part of our enjoyment of this interlude here involved biking through the historical districts of Key West. We did a lot of looking, picture-taking and sometimes visiting with residents along the route. We invariably found the people to be friendly, generous of their time and easy to strike up a conversation with. Through their comments we were given a clearer picture of everyday life in this remote community. We liked what we heard, except when it came to the subject of termites . . . a common denominator in the lives of Key West homeowners. But even paradise can have a drawback or two.
Speaking of common denominators . . . there is also the Key West chickens. Have you heard about them? They’re a very prominent and colorful part of this town. They are found everywhere around town . . . from the busiest streets to the back alleys and lanes. They perch everywhere and are underfoot, especially in outdoor restaurants. Their crowing was heard each morning in our campground, and if you drop a crumb while walking down the street, a few sharp-eyed birds are soon around. Melinda found that out while munching on an afternoon snack.
If residents find them to be of particular nuisance, the local Wild Bird Sanctuary will loan out a chicken trap. Those birds are kept at the sanctuary until enough of them are accumulated, at which point they have a special place to be sent—no, not what you’re thinking! A cattle ranch in central Florida loves these Key West chickens. The pastures are enriched by their fertilizer, and those birds love to scratch up cow manure, which breaks it apart and makes it decay easier.
Key West is reputed to have outstanding sunsets, and the natives sell it for all it’s worth. Gathering to see that solar spectacle at Mallory Square is a regular and scheduled ritual. It is a custom that isn’t kept a secret. The tourists have been told and they turn out en mass to be a part of the atmosphere. Entrepreneur locals take full advantage. There is live music to create the festive atmosphere . . . there are vendors selling tropical drinks to enhance the mood . . . and after the sun does its magic, there are a variety of entertainers displaying their particular talent or inventive skill. It is an atmosphere like no other, and of course we had to take it in. At least for one night.
Sunset cruises on sailing ships is another big part of the show. Shortly before the magic hour, several of these ships leave the harbor laden with people. With music playing and everyone getting in the mood, they sail out into open seas to ply the waters hither and yon, back and forth, passing by the setting sun and then again. Some might consider it a distraction to a beautiful backdrop . . . but the sunsets in Key West will invariably have a few sailing ships mixed in.
An added benefit on that one particular night was a treat for all who were there. It began with a fly-over of a small plane stringing a banner behind. We read the words . . .
And then, lo and behold, we turned around and there just a few yards away . . .
The surrounding crowd broke out with a loud applause. We were all caught up in the spontaneity and delight of the moment. Now that was a memorable sunset!
Key West is full of delights and joie de vivre, and we couldn’t help but be caught up in the atmosphere. Our last night gave us one more great sunset which was a perfect way to remember our pleasant days here.
From the tropical paradise that is Key West,
Chris and Melinda