Road Trip to Key West

Key West is less than an hour’s drive from Big Pine Key, so Al and I decided to spend a little time there while we were visiting with Tim and Amanda. I have always wanted to see Key West, but I may have had a romanticized vision of the island because it was not quite what I expected.

5Brothers was recommended as a good coffee stop. Cuban coffee and pastry. We all know how much Al loves his morning coffee, especially with something sweet. 😉

We took that pesky prop with us and dropped it off at the Prop Doc so it could be unspun (is that the correct terminology for the fix????) The mechanic promised it would be done by the time we drove back. And it was!

My very observant captain spied this sadly neglected Nordic Tug behind a fence in a boatyard on U.S. 1. He even asked me to enlarge the photo (later) so that he could inspect its condition. For a brief moment, I was afraid he might decide to rescue another boat…….. after all, a Nordic Tug is an excellent vessel. 😉

U.S. 1, the only road that goes there. We wish it had been more like the top photo for the entire drive, but as we approached Key West, the traffic became quite congested. Just like any other “shore town” as we say in the northeast.

The name Key West is actually a misnomer. Spanish settlers found human bones all over the tiny island and called it Cayo Hueso (pronounced Kie-O Hwae-So), which translates to “Bone Island”. The bones belonged to the Calusa Indians who had once lived in the Florida Keys. It may have been a funeral island or the site of a fierce battle. English speakers thought Cayo Hueso sounded like “Key West” and the name stuck. I suppose that makes some sense since it is the westernmost island in that chain of cayos. The word “cayo’ comes from the Taino Indians of Hispanola and Cuba and means “small island.”

As Key West first-timers, Bill recommended that we take the Conch Tour Train to get the lay of the land. Yup, we really did this. In spite of how horribly touristy it is, you do get an overview of Key West without straining your legs and/or getting lost.

The Conch Tour Train. and Mark, our “engineer” and guide. I can’t recall all the tidbits, gossip, and history that Mark passed on to his passengers.

 I simply cannot remember everything Mark described as he drove us around Key West for 90+ minutes, especially after six weeks. Here are some of the things I was able to photograph as we passed (no easy task) or later when we wandered around on our own.

Not your average city birds. These two didn’t seem to mind mingling with tourists in Key West.

US 1, known locally as the Overseas Highway, stretches from upper Maine all the way south to Key West for 2,369  miles. The interstate highway connects most of the major cities in the eastern United States. The land version of the Intracoastal Waterway? Supposedly, people like to have their photo taken with the street sign. I think we were more excited about the ICW Mile Marker 0.

Mile Marker 0, on the corner of Fleming Street and Whitehead Street. One sign for BEGIN and one for END.  I guess it all depends on your plans.  Mark told us that the sign is replaced weekly because people take it (should I be blunt and say steal it??)

Mark and his Conch Train took us to another Key West landmark, the Southernmost Point, as it called. This location is just an anchored concrete buoy in Key West, that marks the southernmost point in the continental United States.  Can you really say that it is “anchored” when it is on land? Perhaps “secured” would be more appropriate.  This large decorated buoy is a tourist attraction that was established in 1983 by the city at the corner of South Street and Whitehead Street. However, the actual southernmost point in Florida (as well as in the continental United States) is really 10 miles away at Ballast Key, a privately owned island southwest of Key West. No way would tourists be permitted to line up there!

See the long line of tourists? We did not feel it was worth the wait to have a photo taken here. The close up photo is a small souvenir in a shop, not the real thing. In case you want to take one home with you.

Famous landmark statues – A 25-foot sculpture of the famous Life magazine photo of the sailor kissing a nurse in 1945, the end of WWII.                                                                                             Marilyn Monroe, in front of a movie theater. I should have had Al stand with her. 😉

There are bars in Key West. It has been said that Key West has as many drinking establishments as it does houses of worship, but I think there may be more bars. Disclaimer – We did not personally explore any of the bars shown below.

Just a sample of three bars that Mark pointed out.                                                                                Sloppy Joe’s Bar, founded on December 5, 1933 and known for its most famous patron, Ernest Hemingway. Since 1981, the bar hosts an “Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest.”                      Louie’s Backyard — Jimmy’ Buffett’s first apartment in Key West was located next to Louie’s Backyard bar.                                                                                                                                               Smallest Bar in Key West is 72-square-feet. I wonder if it is the smallest in the US?

On the corner of Duval and Caroline Streets is a building that houses three bars in one. On the 1st floor is “The Bull”, the loud rock band floor. 2nd floor is Whistle Stop, with a juke box, corner bar atmosphere. 3rd Floor is the Garden of Eden, a clothing optional bar.

Time for the more sedate side of Key West. There are churches.

Church of God….. “Tree of Life”

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Like most tropical climates, the cemeteries are above ground.

We stumbled upon the oldest house in Key West as we walked around the streets. This little one-and-a-half story house and garden is open to the public for free. For decades it was the home of Captain Francis Watlington, his wife Emeline, and nine daughters. Watlington was a sea captain and also served as Harbor Master, state legislator and then Confederate Navy.

The oldest house in Key West, constructed in 1829.  A typical 18th century cottage style.

These houses were more of what I was expecting for an island community.

We learned about the blue ceilings of the porches in Key West homes, which is rather interesting.  Aficionados of architecture offer two legends and/or reasons for this tradition. African descendants from the West Indies believed that spirits or ghosts (called “haints”) couldn’t cross water. By painting the ceilings of their porches a shade of water-color blue, the haints would be disoriented and not enter the home. Another explanation was (and still is) that blue porch ceilings confuse bugs. The blue looks like the sky and bugs don’t build nests in the sky; therefore, a natural bug repellent.

Take careful note of the porch’s blue ceiling. It deters bugs and haints.

We needed lunch and a rest. After trial and error, we chose the Schooner Wharf Bar, near the water.

Schooner Wharf Bar – a tiki-style casual place with live music.

A good view of the docks and boats.

Just chillin’ out in Key West.

Our lunches and our friendly waiter.

The back of our waiter’s t-shirt intrigued me. What is the Conch Republic? Evidently, in April of 1982, Key West declared itself a “micro-nation” in an irreverent secession attempt. That spring, without prior notice, the U.S. Border Patrol set up a road block and checkpoint on U.S. Route 1, the only road out of town, to look for drugs and illegal immigrants. Agents required U.S. citizens leaving the Keys to prove their citizenship and submit their vehicles to a search. Keep in mind, this was not an international border. The road block caused a 17-mile traffic jam. Dennis Wardlow , the mayor of Key West is reported to have said, “By establishing that border they have declared us a foreign nation,” he told reporters. “We’re tired of the U.S. government picking on little Key West.”  Although there was a serious side to this episode, the “Conch Republic” is now more of a tourist attraction with merchandise and a yearly festival, and a website.

According to the Conch Tour Train website, “Americans loyal to the British crown after the war, Tories, were not very popular, so they fled the southern states to the next British colony, the Bahamas. Unfortunately, the British Parliament started taxing the Bahamians on their food just like they taxed Bostonians on their tea. The Bahamians said they’d rather eat conch than pay taxes and that is just what they did. They came up with 27 different ways to eat this animal. 

Throughout the years, many came to know and use the term Conch to describe the locals, and those who made the island their home were proud to be nicknamed Key West Conchs……..To this day if you are born in Key West you are a conch. If you are born elsewhere but live here seven years you become a fresh water conch.”

Souvenir shops take full advantage of the whole conch thing. Our self-gathered Bahama conch shells aren’t as clean and pretty as these, but I do love each and every one precisely because we found them ourselves. 

Did I mention that cruise ships stop at Key West on a regular basis?? This is the Empress of the Seas.

On the dock near the Empress of the Seas is this signpost, that cheekily includes  “Selfiemost Point.” I like it. Very funny.

House boats and homes at a marina. Love that smiley roof.

The artsy side of Key West isn’t only in the galleries. There was art out on the streets. I consider conch shells to be art.

Even vehicles can be transformed in art.

Mattheessen’s caught our eye. (We all know Al has radar for ice cream shops.) Al showed restraint and enjoyed his double scoop of raspberry and chocolate. For some reason, I lost control and chose a chocolate covered slice of key lime pie. What was I thinking??? It was delicious, but my tummy ached for a while. Worth it?? You betcha! 

Final thoughts about Key West? We only spent 4 hours in Key West so it is unfair to make any firm judgments. Since I expected something more offbeat, off the beaten track, and less congested with tourists (although that’s exactly what we were), it was a little disappointing. A trip in the evening or on the weekend might have been completely different. We did enjoy ourselves (we almost always do) and would know better how to spend our time if we ever have the opportunity to return in the future. I would be sure we toured the “Winter White House” of President Harry S. Truman and the home of Ernest Hemingway.

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