“Mother, Mother Ocean. I have heard you call. Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall. You’ve seen it all. You’ve seen it all…”
We sat patiently in the Atlanta Airport for our 7:10pm Delta flight to Key West. The gate agent announced it would be delayed to 7:30pm. 7:30pm came and went and we finally began “boarding” at 7:45pm. I quickly laughed that they opened boarding first to the medallion members and then to all others like a normal flight when I descended the stairs and realized we were boarding a bus, not the aircraft. Once we were a mass of shoulder to shoulder flesh pressing mass, the bus took us over to our aircraft, and we finally settled in for our one hour flight.
As we began our final descent into Key West we began seeing lightning off to our left. A few minutes later it was on both sides of us and we bounced our way thru the clouds and finally the lights of the island came into view. As we descended the stairs, I saw the greeting on the airport that is the first welcome to all flyers, “Welcome to the Conch Republic” which translates to “Welcome to Paradise”. I could feel a smile develop on my face and a sense of relaxation permeate my being.
When we entered the terminal, the bulk of our fellow flyers crowded for the rental car counters, and I chuckled. Key West is an island 2 miles by 4 miles. Parking is at a premium on the island and hotels charge $20-$30 a day for valet parking. Street parking is covered with meters, so why bother with a rental car? It is a cultural thing for most folks from the continental U.S., and folks assume they have to have a car to exist. That is simply not the case here. We took a cab to the hotel for a mere $15 and had an enjoyable visit with a native Conch.
We arrived and checked into the Ocean Key Resort and were pleasantly surprised with our accommodations. The hotel was originally constructed as a timeshare, and the hotel bought out all but 6 of the timeshares and performed an extensive remodel. Our room was a very comfortable “Junior Suite” with a balcony view out onto the end of Duval Street and the water.
Tuesday, we acted like pure tourist. We had a bite of breakfast in the room and then began walking down Duval St. A bit of the Old Towne flavor has been replaced by hundreds of T-Shirt shops and bars. I am not sure how many T-shirt shops a village needs, but I am confident that Duval ST. has at least 50 more than it needs. We ventured off a few blocks to a bookstore and then began the touristy site-seeing. The island rents a plethora of electric cars, scooters, and bicycles. We opted for a more traditional approach – we walked. In fact, we walked so much, my wife became quite dismayed with her “kitten” heels, and we stopped into a local shop and purchased her some less dressy but more functional Ked’s tennis shoes.
One of our first stops was the “Ernest Hemingway House”. Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson had caught wind of him having an affair with Pauline Pfieffer so she divorced him. Hemingway married Pauline the following week and came to Key West on their honeymoon. While on the island, the couple found the house that had been originally built by Captain Tift. It was purchased for the couple by Pauline’s uncle for $8,000.
Pauline removed all of the ceiling fans because she claimed they were tacky. She replaced them with Murano glass chandeliers – even in the bathrooms. The heat and humidity in the house was rough and the chandeliers were tacky in my humble opinion. Perhaps the ceiling fans were a better idea. A guest house set about 20 feet from the house and had a metal catwalk to the second floor of the house. Hemingway would walk across the catwalk to the loft of the guest house every morning to perform his writing.
In the garden was a urinal surrounded by tile with a large vase fountain dripping into it. Hemingway had been a regular at Sloppy Joe’s bar in town. One day the landlord informed the proprietor of Sloppy Joe’s that he was raising the rent $1 a week. The bar owner said he would not pay the new rate and would move. He secured a location on Duval ST. and informed the patrons one evening that they were moving the bar and to pick up something and carry it down the street. Hemmingway and some of the regulars got a bit carried away with the process and yanked out the sinks and urinals. Hemingway took one home and Pauline dressed it up with the tile and fountain.
Pauline later determined that Hemingway was having an affair with Martha Gellhorn and divorced him. Hemingway married Martha soon after. Pauline retained the house in the divorce, and he moved to Cuba. When she died, she left the house to Hemingway in her will.
We rambled our way to the marker for the southernmost point of the United States, stood in the obligatory line to have a picture made, we took a picture for the two girls in line in front of us, who returned the favor and took our picture for us. An enterprising young man was selling bottled water for a dollar just the other side of the marker. With the heat, I supported his enterprising efforts. Note: although the marker claims to be the southernmost point, it is actually the southernmost publicly accessible point. The southernmost point can be seen through the fence behind the marker. It is a point of land owned by the military base and has a large satellite dish sitting on it aimed at Cuba.
We then visited the lighthouse. Although, we opted not to pay the fee and climb the stairs. We simply walked the block and snapped a couple photos.
After a lunch at Crabby Dick’s on Duval Street, we made our way back to Mallory Square and toured Key West’s original tourist attraction, the Aquarium. I have surmised that the standard rate on the island for museums, old houses, and aquariums is $12 whether actually deserving or not. Mallory Square sits at the pier where the cruise ships used to port (they now port a little further down at the Westin’s marina), so it is lined with souvenir shops and lightweight attractions to relieve the cruise ship tourist of as many dollars as possible while they are on the island.
For our evening entertainment, we opted to book space on a catamaran sunset tour leaving port from just outside our hotel. Hog’s Breath Saloon supplied a live band and the ship supplied complimentary drinks and appetizers. As we motored away from the dock we encountered a light rain which soon subsided. A cool breeze around 8-10 mph was just perfect for an enjoyable evening. Captain Ron made the call to hoist the mainsail, and we soon had a sheet full of wind.
“Watched the men who rode you change from sail to steam. In your belly you hold the treasure few have ever seen. Most of them dreams, most of them dreams…”
Although the sunset was hidden behind a blanket of clouds, we drank in the view and the short sailing ride. Captain Ron positioned the catamaran at the prescribed position for a view of the sunset despite its absence and held us in position until 8:20pm (the advertised time for sunset). I chuckled to see the antenna array just off in the distance on the shoreline. It was the Naval Air Base we had walked past on our trip to the legendary southernmost point marker earlier in the day.
Most notable beyond the beauty of watching storms in the distance, I enjoyed the faux-pirate ships that sailed by us. There are several in the waters around Key West looking like something out of the Pirates of the Caribbean, but do not let them fool you, they have engines to augment their sail power.
As we returned to port, winds were picking up and it was storming north of the island. We beat a hurried retreat to Two Friends Patio Restaurant on Front Street. Two Friends has been here since 1967 and is currently up for sale.
The rain never came but the wind continued to rock the palms both inside and outside. We were entertained by the karaoke in the lounge while we feasted on lobster tails and crab legs.
Wednesday was our ultimate lazy day. After all is that not what vacation is all about in the first place? We walked down to Starbuck’s for breakfast and then set up camp at the hotel pool which just happens to have an excellent view of the water. Lunch was had pool side in a deck chair. We took a stroll down Whitehead Street and made a keen observation. I can now quickly tell the Conchs from the tourists. The Conchs walk on the side of the street with shade. The tourists walk on the side in the sun burning them from the heads to the soles of their feet.
By recommendation of Steven Vore, we meandered over to the Schooner Wharf Bar for dinner. They bill themselves as “A Last Little Piece of Old Key West”. I would have to agree with that claim. The bar sits at Williams Street on the Harbor Walk. It is a classic open air bar with outside tables sitting on roughly graded concrete and loose gravel adorned with umbrellas and a large sail. The atmosphere was very relaxed and patrons dined with their leashed dogs sitting at their sides. A Cuban gentleman quietly sat at a small table hand rolling cigars and selling them. All the while sailboats, houseboats, and fishing boats quietly made their way in and out of the harbor. The food was enjoyable, the service was good, and the environment relaxing.
Moored almost directly behind the Schooner Wharf Bar is the Schooner Western Union.
Now here is some history sitting right before one’s eyes. Built in Key West in 1939, the 130 foot schooner is the oldest working wooden schooner in the United States. It was built to tend Western Union’s undersea telegraph lines. The schooner was fitted with two engines to assist in cable laying missions. She was retired from Western Union’s service in 1974 and went through restoration and preservation for ten years. She was purchased by Vision Quest in 1984 and renamed the New Way being used as a part of a program to help troubled adolescents learn honor, self-discipline and a work ethic. In 1997, she returned to Key West and restored to her original name. The tall ship has since offered daily sails, sunset sails, and private charters.
We then made out way back to Mallory Square to see the carnival that is sunset at Key West. Street performers stake their claim to an area in the square by marking off a square on the ground with rope and in the hour before sundown, they put on their shows. There was everything from musicians playing bagpipes, singers with guitars, the Gold Guy who makes sound effects and moves like a machine, the Silver Guy who stands motionlessly behind his silver bike, Pirates available to pose for a picture, to jugglers on unicycles and dogs walking tight ropes. Vendors lined the area as well selling food and beverage, jewelry, art, coconuts adorned with NFL logos, and names etched on shells (why anyone wants their name etched on a shell is beyond me). Sunset at Mallory Square is fun and entertaining. I would have to rank it a must see. Pick a different side show every night you are in town.
Wednesday we toured Harry Truman’s Little White House Museum, another $12 tour. I see a pattern developing here.
We met Michael and Laine Beattie (conchscooter) for dinner at El Siboney for authentic Cuban food. Michael and Laine arrived on his green Triumph and an enjoyable conversation soon began. We had never tried Cuban food before, and it was a pleasant treat. Plantains were sweet and tasty, and Yucca was tasty as well. Michael and Laine were a wealth of good information on Key West. They strongly suggested that we visit Dry Tortugas the next time we are in the Keys and raved about the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum. I was surprised as we had bypassed the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum earlier in the week.
We awoke early Friday to prepare for our 7:30am return flight. When I turned on my cell phone, I discovered a voicemail that our flight was cancelled. Swell! After a lengthy discussion we were rescheduled for 5:30pm. The airline had originally tried to book us for a 12:30pm (noon) flight the following day. Having no extra clothes packed, no room in the hotel, and discovering that they were intending on flying us to Orlando and then connecting to Atlanta (effectively turning a one hour and 20 minute flight into a four and half hour flight, I pushed back a bit.
Unfortunately, our hotel was solidly booked up for the day, so we would have to check out by 1pm and find a place in the shade to pass the time. In July in Key West, shade is a preciously coveted commodity. With unexpected time to kill, we elected to follow the Beattie’s recommendation and tour the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum. Why was I not surprised that it was $12 a person for admission? The museum was well worth admission and lived up to the recommendations. Fisher had searched for 16 years to discover the resting place of a sunken Spanish Galleon. His persistence paid off. First his team discovered one of the ships cast iron anchors then a few silver bars before discovering the mother load. The museum is a collection of silver bars, gold bars, cannons, and everything imaginable from the ship. The experience would definitely rank as a must see. Besides, where else are you going to get to lift a gold bar?
“Yes, I am a pirate. 200 years too late. The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothing to plunder. I’m an over 40 victim of fate. Arriving too late, arriving too late…”
After a little lunch we begrudgingly gave up our room and grabbed a cab to the Key West International Airport. Our cab ride took us past Charter Fishing Row. We will need to add a charter fishing trip to our next visit. With all of the commercial development in Old Town, the airport is a return to old Key West. The waiting area in the main lobby of the airport seats maybe 20 with seating scattered around walls. The only bathrooms are on one end near the gift shop and the “Conch Flyer” restaurant, so the baggage handlers have to walk through the ticketing area to get to a restroom. So, if you are waiting 3 or 4 hours for your flight, you get to meet all the employees. They have made an attempt to keep the airport technologically up to date. The “Conch Flyer” has free public wireless internet access, so if you sit close enough to the entrance to the restaurant, you can get free wireless access J. The other side of the token is that once you go through security, you no longer have access to restrooms without going back through security. And no, there are no jetways. It is the classic old school approach of walking out on the tarmac and up the stairs. I could hear Ron White in my head and looked for the tire center, but I did not see one. Once through security we realized the seating in the “secured area” has not been reupholstered since the airport was originally constructed (1950??). The seats were full of cracks and rips and there was hardly any room to move. Someone with a need for a tax write-off needs to make a sizeable charitable donation to the Key West Airport. If I ever hit the lottery, I’ll add them to my list.
We finally touched down in Atlanta around 7:40pm. After our train ride and drive to the house, we were back at the house around 9:30pm. We will definitely be returning to Key West, as we have already assembled a list of things we want to see and do on the next visit. As SPF30 was not quite enough to protect the wife, I will be locating some SPF50 for the next trip.
“Mother, Mother Ocean” – Jimmy Buffett