Key West, Florida
Located closer to Havana than Miami, Key West is synonymous for all that is fabulous. Whether it’s beaches, back country or just a brilliant time that you’re after, Florida’s most southern point holds a wealth of intrigue, both past and present. Famed for its unique originality, Key West is a condensation of the best of the sunshine state – fantastic weather, laid back attitude, deep-rooted history and masses of fantastic, fresh seafood; it’s little wonder that nobody ever wants to leave.
Floating in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, the island has two very definite personalities: bookish and bizarre. On the one hand, the literary festivals, exquisite Caribbean architecture and splendid art galleries attract the bourgeoisie, while on the other, the eccentricity and reticence to be associated with “the mainland” attracts all kinds of “happies” –new era hippies. The two dichotomies live peacefully side by side and have done ever since travellers started arriving in the 1960s — Key West being one of the three big K’s on the hippie path to enlightenment (Kuta and Kathmandu are the others).
But past the idiosyncrasies of the Key Westers, and you will find an island that is literally brimming over with spectacular sights and wonderful wilderness. From Henry S. Truman’s Little White House and Ernest Hemmingway’s house and studio, to botanical gardens and marine sanctuaries, visitors will leave this fascinating island wanting more.
Best seen by foot, bike or boat, this is an island to be explored al fresco.
Famed for its breathtaking sunsets and a natural meeting point for the fun and fabulous, Mallory Square is the epicenter of all the delightful oddities of the island. By day, this busy seafront square and pier attracts visitors or all nationalities, while at night it turns into a huge open-air stage for buskers, street food sellers and performers; do not miss Will Soto – a tightrope and juggling act who has been performing in the square for over 20 years. Apart from a few mainstays such as Will (or Dominique the Cat Man and Checkers Mallory), the acts come and go, keeping the creativity and the inspiration fresh and exciting. The square itself dates back to the 1820’s when the enterprising Asa Tift would salvage shipwrecks that washed up ashore and repurpose the timber for profit. Almost two centuries on, the square is still the busy hub of gossip, street food and nightlife that it was back then. Day or night, Mallory Square is a spectacle that you do not want to miss.
The Ernest Hemmingway Home and Museum
American literary history is founded on many great authors but none could be considered more important than Ernest Hemmingway. One of the literary protagonists of the 20th century, Hemmingway’s economical, succinct prose has led to generations of imitators, yet has never been rivaled. Finding solace in “the great physical challenge and turquoise waters” of the island, the author wrote some of his most notable work here —including Death in the Afternoon (1932) and To Have and To Have Not (1937).
Ernest and his wife Pauline lived in Key West throughout the 1930s, and the privately owned house that is now the museum was his home, studio and think tank during those years. Moving to Key West straight after their infamous sojourn in Paris, many original artifacts remain from the couple’s time in there, including Pauline’s coveted chandelier collection that she installed in the place of ceiling fans. However, Hemmingway left another, rather astonishing legacy — around 40-50 polydactyl (multi-toed) cats. The cats living at the museum today are in fact direct descendants of “Snowball” the original ancestor. During the writer’s era, the cats were kept as pets and named after famous people and the Museum hosts have kept up with the tradition — so don’t be surprised to find yourself face to face with a Fitzgerald, Dali or Miller!
Key West Aquarium and Butterfly Sanctuary
Reputed for its conservation ethic, Key West plays a keen part in the protection of its marine wildlife. Naturally for an island of such diversity, the shores are protected and while divers and snorkelers are welcomed, the delicate waters surrounding the island contain North America’s only living coral reef and thus the wonders of the seas abundant of marine life (including tropical species found no place else on earth) must be revered.
Nevertheless, if you prefer your marine life with your feet firmly on the ground, then perhaps take in a visit to the popular Key West Aquarium. The historic aquarium first opened its door to the public in 1935 charging its visitors a whopping 35 cents entrance fee! The first of its kind to incorporate natural sunlight into its construction, a hurricane struck the building just seven months after opening and it was not until after WWII that the aquarium was restored to its former glory.
Today the Aquarium houses sea turtles, a petting and feeding centre, a touch tank, a stingray bay and an Atlantic shores section, making the interactive experience something to look forward to — or back on with delight.
A short 7-minute stroll from the aquarium finds you in Duval Street, and in the magical world of the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservation Sanctuary. Some 50-60 different varieties and around 20 bird species cohabite under a climate controlled roof and the diversity of size, shape, colour, patterns and behaviour make these delicate winged creatures a delight to see. The conservation centre has well-informed, passionate guides who are only too happy to answer visitor questions, from the butterflies’ life span, the mating process or even how they see!