By Jim Ferri
I had been to “fun and funky” Key West, as National Geographic describes it, once several years ago.
At that time a friend and I made the 3+-hour drive down from Miami, parked the car, had a beer and burger, then turned around and drove back. Obviously the trip was more about the journey than the destination.
Now, however, I wanted to actually visit the town and cajoled my cousins into making the trip with me. It turned out to be interesting for all three of us, and even the burger tasted better this time.
Only 90 miles from Cuba and nearly twice that from Miami, you reach Key West via a seemingly never-ending ribbon of road that hopscotches across myriad islands and keys. Sometimes, with no land in sight for a moment or two, you get a surreal feeling that you’re actually driving on the blue and turquoise water. The road crosses 42 bridges including well-known Seven Mile Bridge, made famous in the chase scene of the movie True Lies.
The first thing you notice about Key West when you arrive is the quiet, almost irreverent, air about the whole town, a laid-back, mañana feeling of a place where everyone seems to be on vacation. You only need to walk around for a while and you realize that everything revolves about sightseeing, shopping, lying by the pool and watching the sunset. You’ll also find that in Key West Happy Hour has been elevated to an art form.
Art imbues the city. It’s one of those places where homes and buildings are painted so many colors the local Sherwin-Williams dealer has a perennial smile on his face, and it’s this artistic aura that draws tourists down here. But the place can fill up quickly so plan accordingly. It’s best to park your car, if you can find a parking space, and either walk or rent a bike (for about $7), a scooter ($25) or hire a pedicab.
It’s obligatory for everyone who comes here to go to the very southernmost point of the continental USA, to have his or her picture taken. Once there you find a big marker that looks somewhat like a big buoy, and probably is, which tells you that you really are at the southernmost point and only 90 miles from Fidel & Co.
When we arrived midmorning there already was a line of tourists snapping away. We waited a few minutes to stage our little photo shoot, and then turned back past the continental USA’s most southernmost house, shop, tree and street corner in search of Ernest Hemingway’s famous Key West home. We discovered it only a few minutes away – the town is so compact everything seemed to be just a few minutes away – with a line already snaking up to the entrance booth.
The three of us found the place fascinating. Painted white with lime green shutters, with a wrought iron veranda wrapping about the entire second floor, it sits in a beautiful garden. Hemingway’s little working studio-house, where he wrote A Farewell to Arms and To Have and Have Not, is out back.
Inside, from the living room to the bedrooms up on the second floor, it contains numerous mementos of his life and that of his second wife Pauline. One of its fascinations for many visitors are the 50 or so six-toed cats, all descendants of Hemmingway’s pets, which live there. They were sleeping everywhere – on the bed, on cabinets and out in the garden. Hemingway named them all after famous people and characters in his work (a practice that continues today) and out in the cat cemetery on the side of the house we saw the feline-graves of Kim Novak, Zsa-Zsa Gabor, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe.
We never got to visit the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens or Truman’s Little White House, since we headed instead to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Café (the original) on Duval Street for lunch and some surprisingly good burgers. Later on we wandered along Duval and the neighboring streets through a hodge-podge of shops selling everything from tacky tee-shirts to art and antiques.
And it wasn’t just in galleries where we found art. All around town we continually bumped into sidewalk artists who were selling their own little masterpieces, most depicting seascapes and local scenes. Based on their quality, however, it was likely many had been created during Happy Hour a day or two earlier.
Key West also has a somewhat interesting Art and Historical Museum, located in the old red-brick Custom House. Since the building’s restoration it provides a pretty good overview of the history of the area and when we visited there was a whimsical 20-foot statue of early 20th-century dancers out on the steps. The museum is across from the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, right down the street from the Key West Shipwreck Museum, and a few blocks from honky-tonk Mallory Square where you can enjoy Happy Hour at sunset, replete with a sideshow of mimes, sword swallowers, musicians, and more.
All “fun and funky” so they say.
If you go:
The Key West Museum of Art and History in the Custom House
281 Front St.
Key West, FL 33040
Tel: (305) 295-6616
Open daily from 9:30 AM-4:30 PM; closed Christmas
Admission is seven dollars for adults, six dollars for seniors (62+)
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
907 Whitehead Street
Key West, FL 33040
Tel: (305) 294-1136
Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Key West
500 Duval Street
Key West, FL 33040
Tel: (305) 292-1435