A visit to the country’s most tropical getaway uncovers events, celebrities, and unabashed individualism.
There’s something about Key West and the neighboring Florida Keys. The residents, about 25,000 year-round, help to give the Keys an image of casual independence and individualism to the point of celebrity.
As a tourist town, Key West is ideally located on the southernmost tip of the U.S., a great vantage point for cruise ships, fishermen, scuba divers, and visitors. Breezes from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico enhance the year-round temperate climate.
Some might hesitate to visit Key West in July or August, but that would be a shame. There’s always a party going on in Key West. And even though temperatures average 90 degrees, Key West, like many tropical climates, is a very outdoorsy destination. Sidewalk cafés abound. Buildings are made to capture the cooling winds. Fragrant gardens often beckon a visitor.
One local described Key West as a breakfast town, and this is true especially in the summer, when going out for a meal in the morning before the day gets too hot is most enjoyable. Locals and guests stroll to favorite cafés and restaurants for a rich array of breakfast choices.
A popular choice is the Blue Heaven Restaurant. Breakfast here is served until 2 p.m. (for the late risers); lunch also is available. The breakfast menu is extensive, but recommendations include Richard’s Very Good Pancakes, as well as shrimp and grits.
Dine inside or al fresco. There’s a bit of local color here, too. You’ll see chickens roaming free outside, pecking at crumbs and clucking softly. Cats also are part of the tableau.
Celebrities are Key
The famous and the someday-to-be-famous have gravitated to Key West for decades, including noted writers and politicians. Tennessee Williams lived here in the 1940s. Today, there is the Tennessee Williams Theatre that offers local theater throughout the year on the Florida Keys Community College campus.
President Harry S. Truman came to Key West 11 times during his years in office. He spent a total of 175 days at the Little White House, formerly a Naval station headquarters. Visitors can tour the residence and see Truman’s mementoes, including his desk, books, briefcase, telephone, and the famous “The Buck Stops Here” desktop sign.
But the most famous of Key West’s celebrities is Ernest Hemingway. The renowned author lived here, perhaps even helped to set the culture of Key West. His presence was the stuff of local lore, and his importance to Key West is celebrated with the Hemingway Days event each summer. This year, the 34th annual event will be July 15–20.
Held at Sloppy Joe’s, a perennially popular bar and restaurant, the highlight is the Hemingway Look-Alike contest. Last year’s event drew more than 130 entrants from points far and near vying for the title of Papa of the Year.
The best look-alike gets his photo on the Look-Alike Wall inside Sloppy Joe’s and a year’s worth of celebrity. But the bar gives homage to Hemingway year-round. You’ll see a full wall of photographs of the author and even a pair of his snow skis. It’s believed that Hemingway gave the bar its name in 1933.
More Hemingway history is found at the Hemingway Home & Museum where the author lived and wrote. Tourists from around the world come to see his office and battered metal manual typewriter.
So do the famous polydactyl cats, more commonly known as mitten cats or six-toed cats. Currently, 45 roam the grounds and greet guests 365 days a year. They are almost as popular as Hemingway. These cats are so popular that visitors from all over the globe bring treats. But please, no catnip, says Jacque Sands, general manager.
“Catnip doesn’t work with 45 different personalities,” Sands said.
Another great event and attraction is tied to explorer Mel Fisher. The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum gives visitors a chance to see the vast array of artifacts retrieved by the treasure hunter from a Spanish galleon that sank off the Florida Keys in 1622. There are displays of the gold, jewels, and other riches found, as well as behind-the-scenes tours with marine archaeologists.
And check out Mel Fisher Days here, July 10–13. A pirate pub crawl, pirate ball, and treasure hunt are some of the planned events. Net proceeds will benefit a local charity.
(See the listing of additional summer events in Key West at right.)
Ghosts of Key West
As the second-oldest city in the U.S. (after St. Augustine, Fla.), there’s plenty of history and legends in Key West. Many people have left their mark here, and according to some, their ghostly spirits.
That’s where David Sloan comes in. He conducts Ghost Tours of Key West and brings to light some of the local lore. He also equips his clients with ghost-sniffing gear, the type often seen on ghost-hunting cable shows.
The Sunset Celebration
One thing most tourists to Key West participate in is the Sunset Celebration, a decades-old ritual that happens at the end of Duval Street. Hundreds of people are drawn to Mallory Square, which turns into a free party zone each evening.
Street performers and vendors set up before sunset as crowds gather. There’s no real agenda other than the one set by nature. The Sunset Celebration is so integral to the aura of Key West that city officials passed a law some years back requiring cruise ships to clear the area two hours before sunset so as not to block the view.
Sunset viewing isn’t limited to landlubbers. Several tour companies run sunset cruises in Key West.
Whether on land or at sea, there’s the chance to see the famed “green flash,” an optical phenomenon that occurs just above the sun’s setting rim when conditions are just right. But green flash or not, this is the closest view of the day’s end. And Key West is the closest thing to a tropical island getaway without a passport.
Fred W. Wright Jr. is a contributor from St. Petersburg, Fla.
July/August 2014 Issue
Add zip to your summer escape to Key West, Fla., by attending one of these events.
July 4 Independence Day Fireworks, the Florida Keys. Displays throughout the Florida Keys including at the Casa Marina Resort & Beach Club in Key West.
July 12 30th Annual Underwater Music Festival, Big Pine and Lower Keys. Music piped underwater for divers, snorkelers, and scuba enthusiasts.
Aug. 7–10 Annual Lobsterfest celebrates the opening of lobster season in Key West. Great food, music, and a street fair.
Aug. 16 Anything That Floats Race, Key Largo. Competitors race with wacky boats concocted from items found around the house.
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