Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Key West

A sizable chunk of my 20s are/were an alcoholic blur. That included (I'm fairly sure) a brief trip to Key West. It was vaguely familiar. I'd always wanted to return for a proper tour. For our second wedding anniversary, I did. What a gorgeous place.

Folks are constantly referring to South Florida as "paradise". If you consider a sweltering, overly commercialized, attitude-ridden swath of swampland a paradise, more power to you. Yes, there are pretty beaches, quaint historic neighborhoods (I live in one), and some lovely people, but overall I've always found it a wildly overrated mecca of unchecked entitlement and humidity. But not Key West.

It takes over 4 hours by automobile from West Palm Beach to the southernmost tip, but the drive down U.S. 1 ("Overseas Highway") is dandy. Instead of miles of concrete and unpredictable truckers, to say nothing of those daredevil cyclists who speed around you maybe 20 degrees off the pavement, you get a 2 lane highway that passes over the gorgeous waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, their hues in the sunlight brilliant blues and greens. Some of the islands or "keys" you pass through are more commercial (Islamorada, Marathon, Tavernier) and feature lots of shops and the usual eyesores of local businesses, but usually it's only a minute before the landscape once again reveals much unspoiled foliage and wetland. There's even a habitat for deer in Big Pine Key; you are warned with several signs to watch for them. It was encouraging to learn that the deer population, once near extinction, has now multiplied.

When you finally get to the county seat of Monroe County, you are now closer to Havana, Cuba than to Miami. The neighborhood where the famous buoy sits announcing the 90 mile point from Cuba in fact reminded my wife of the troubled country to the South (she had visited nearly 10 years before). We took the obligatory picture with it. There was a line of folks waiting for their turn, handing their cameras to strangers behind them; quite the unexpected social event, there.Nearby on Whitehead and Truman (named after the U.S. President who spent quite a bit of time in town) is the Hemingway House. Almost immediately you are greeted by the famouse yellow shutters and dozens of felines, some with six toes, descendents of Snowball, Ernest's kitty from decades past.A tour guide with just the right amount of character lead us through the rooms and gardens of the estate, his colorful narrative quite entertaining.As I had already learned during my work on a research paper during high school, Papa Hemingway had a troubled but adventurous 61 years on this earth. Several wives, homes also in Cuba, Spain, and Idaho (where he committed suicide in the early 1960s), famous and not-so-famous friends were all discussed. The House was very peaceful, the cats dozing in the shade or on antique furniture. A bit of amusement: a urinal from the original Sloppy Joe's sits horizontally in the garden, used as a fountain. Our guide explained that Hemingway felt that since "I pissed enough money away in (it), I might as well keep it!" We also huddled in a narrow stairwell to see the room where many of the author's novels were typed.Across Truman Street is the Key West Lighthouse and Museum, open for tourists since its deactivation in 1969.Completed in 1847, the tower was a replacement for the previous structure built at Whitehead's Point, the southernmost point of the island, in 1826. Over the years, the lighthouse system was improved with Fresnel lenses from France and the tower itself got higher and higher. We ascended the very narrow staircase and looked out over the Key, all 360 degrees from the top.

Back down in the gift shop, I picked up a book which detailed the history of the one time railroad system spearheaded by Henry Flagler around 1911-1912. It was the first and only time trains were to be linked to the mainland. Many laborers lost their lives erecting the concrete structure with tracks over swamps and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. The Great Depression and a major hurricane did it in in the mid-30s. The railroad was not rebuilt, but U.S. Highway One's full trail to the lowest Keys was completed in 1938.

Backing up, per a recommendation we at at the lovely Blue Heaven restaurant on Thomas Street, an outdoor, patio-like atmosphere of neon and art, the tables placed around giant trees. We of course had to have key lime pie on this trip, and theirs was a doozy, complete with a tall meringue head atop.In fact, you would expect we had lots of fine food and atmosphere to go with it. We had a lunch at Hog's Breath (sirloin sandwich and onion rings), a nice wrap for lunch at Sweet Tea's, a tasty plate of flounder at the 30 + year old Bagatelle; the latter 2 eateries on famous Duval Street.

You've heard of Duval? It's the only street in the U.S. bordered by 2 oceans: the Atlantic to the East and the Gulf of Mexico to the West. It is the main drag, part of Old Town, with bar after bar after was teeming there on Saturday night. One guy dressed like Spiderman was playing a sitar. THAT was worthy of some coin in his hat.

Side note: Pepper's, off Duval on Green Street. We went for a visit as my wife's cousin had worked there several years earlier. Never have I seen such a collection of hot sauces and condiments, even spicy coffee! One wall has a glass case with the most potent sauces locked up. We were told that any one drop of those should be diluted in a gallon of water. You have to sign a waiver to purchase any of them.

We did not engage on any aquatic adventures on this trip, aside from a few hours on the glass bottom boat, which sails about 6 miles into the Gulf, hovering over one of the largest barrier reefs in the world.Crew members provide very interesting data on the reef and the biology of it; I was not aware how toxic humans' bateria are to coral, for example. On future visits, we will definitely snorkel around. John Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo to the north is also a great location to gaze at undersea life.

We did not drive around Key West; it just isn't necessary. Renting a bike or scooter serves one well. The weather was grand, so we just walked (better to burn all those calories!). We would walk Eaton toward Old Town, drinking in all the fanatastic architecture. Antebellum and Art Deco homes line the aves, many converted into hotels, B & Bs, museums, but many occupied by residents, perhaps many who visited and never left. Understandable. Our final morning in town we ate breakfast at a hotel right on the beach. Our English waitress explained that she and her husband moved to Key West last summer and have no immediate plans to leave. If it wasn't for the hurricane threat to such a low lying plain (plus the heat of the summer months), I think my wife and I would follow suit.

Finally, there are 2 other things about Key West you may have very likely heard about: ubiquitous roosters and otherwordly sunsets. Our wanderings around the island revealed many chickens and roosters, and their offspring, pecking about the beautiful gardens in search of insects. The roosters crow near non-stop on the street, in trees, everywhere. Someone said there is a city ordinance protecting them. After a few hours in Key West, it seemed completely normal to have them around.

The sunset? I first learned of the patented beauty and appreciation, interestingly enough, from the 1985 buddy comedy RUNNING SCARED. That was the one with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines as Chicago cops who strongly consider retiring in the Keys. In one scene, Crystal wonders why everyone has gathered just to watch the sun dip into the West yet again. He learns it is a tradition. If you go, it won't take long for you to stand mesmerized by the shifting light and color schemes, the palette growing more orangey golden as the giant ball melts and kisses the ocean. We stood in Mallory Square with hundreds of others, including entertainers who juggled and had cats jumping through hoops of fire. The soft clicking of cameras and "ooh"s and "ahh"s lasted quite a while until the great light finally disappeared. We were left with a violet twilight that was perfect atmosphere for a romantic stroll with my bride.

We wondered aloud many times why it took so long for us to visit. I think we'll be returning quite soon.
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