Key West is crazy big time fun. I was surprised how much there was to do, since my impression before going there was just fish, party, sleep, repeat. It’s definitely a fishing paradise, and from the drive down the Overseas Highway, I assume that is true in most of the Keys. Key West does seem to be filled with people living a life of days filled with fishing and evenings with a cold one, but there is a lot more going on here. Not surprisingly, happiness appears to be widespread and very contagious.
My friend Deanna joined me for this part of my trip. She’s a fun and easy going travel companion, so we had a great time. We rented a two person golf cart to address the lack of parking that is an issue on most islands (complete with license plate and totally street legal). The cart gave us the benefit of “social time” while we puttered around at a maximum speed of 23 mph. If you prefer something quicker, I suggest renting a scooter instead. Bikes are also an option, and all three can be rented all over the island. After getting settled in our campground, we puttered down to the famed Duval Street to check out the action. We started on the Atlantic Ocean side, where restaurants and galleries are the focus, then worked our way down to the Gulf side, where the evening partying and sunset views dominate the scene.
We arrived on a Wednesday evening, and hadn’t stopped to consider that we would be spending St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Key West. Apparently we were the only ones who forgot about it, because there was a steady Irish party theme crescendo so that by Friday afternoon, revelers were out in force wearing their finest green party attire.
After a lazy lunch, we were slowly walking through the shops on Duval Street when a boldly dressed woman in a lime green fishnet mini dress called to us from across the street. “Come on over to the free show about to start in 10 minutes!” As we stood there pondering what exactly we might be getting ourselves into, she crossed the street towards us insisting, “Oh sweeties, don’t think I won’t come over here to get you!” It didn’t seem too threatening, and we were amused enough to go check it out. The show turned out to be some kind of drag queen lip syncing thing. I don’t have a clue what this might have looked like later in the evening, but the 5 pm audience was a diverse mix of people who were all completely happy to cheer on the performers over their late afternoon cocktail. It was quite entertaining and I was especially impressed by the “big move” of full splits, as I my legs stiffened up just sitting there watching the show.
I headed over to Dry Tortugas on Saturday (separate blog post coming!), then on Sunday we made our way downtown once again to tour the home of Ernest Hemingway and to hear more about his remarkable life. The tour guide did a wonderful job of addressing both the highs and the lows of Hemingway’s life, including the impact of bi-polar disorder, alcoholism, traumatic physical injuries, and four rocky marriages. The extraordinary counterbalance to that was his incredible discipline as a writer, which led to a prolific and celebrated literary career. For his last major work of fiction, “The Old Man and the Sea“, he won the Pulizer Prize, and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was awarded a Bronze Star by President Roosevelt for bravery during his work as a war correspondent during WWII. They didn’t cover any of his work as a spy, which was recently chronicled in, “Writer, Sailer, Soldier, Spy” but I suspect that will find it’s way into the tour soon, since the historian who wrote that book did quite a thorough job of researching that aspect of his life, which is fascinating.
The tour ended with a very amusing story of how Hemingway left Key West, along with his mistress, to cover the Spanish Civil War and was gone for nearly a year. When his wife discovered he had taken his mistress with him, she had his backyard boxing ring dismantled and a lavish pool installed. Hemingway returned and assumed his wife had used their life savings to pay for the extravagance, hurled his “last red cent” at her, and then headed out for a night of drinking. The night ended with his bringing home a urinal from the bar and tossing it just outside their bedroom window as his own “pool”. His wife had the penny embedded into the not yet dry cement surrounding the pool, and the urinal covered in a colorful tile mosaic then modified into a drinking fountain for the cats. The penny remains lodged in the cement to this day, and the fountain still offers fresh water to the famous six toed kitties that roam the property.
There are 53 cats on the property at present, all of them direct descendants of Hemingway’s original Snow White female, given to the family as a good luck charm, as six toed kitties were considered good luck and Hemingway was quite superstitious.
After the tour of Hemingway’s House, we headed a few doors down to the Six Toed Cafe for a late lunch, then over to Smathers Beach for a few hours of sunshine and a dip in the clear blue waters before calling it a day.
Overall impression: Key West seemed to me to mix the history of St. Augustine, the party vibe of New Orleans, and some other fisherman/love of the sea quality that is unique to the island. It has a more variety of things to do than I initially expected, and was such a fun place to visit that can see why so many people told me that I was going to love it! I definitely did. The only downside for me was the drive to get there, since I was towing a camper on the Overseas Highway and had to battle cross winds at times.
Lodging: 5 nights at the Boyd’s Campground ran me $618 (this is on the high side for campgrounds but is a normal rate for a high demand location.) The campground is packed tight, but has great amenities, clean bathrooms and showers, and a surprisingly nice gift shop. It is located on Stock Island, just over the bridge from the main island of Key West.
Golf Cart Rental: (optional but definitely suggest renting either a scooter or cart or bike) ~ $110 for the first day, and ~$80/day thereafter. Scooters are much less, starting at about ~40/day.
Admission to Hemmingway House: $14, cash only.
Meals: We had breakfast at the campground, then ate out for lunch and had drinks and an appetizer back at the camper at end of the day. Lunches ran anywhere from $15-40 depending on how upscale we wanted, or how many drinks we ordered. 🙂 For me, the best dinner was at Hurricane Hole (entrees in the $25 range, I had the conch corn chowder and the catch of the day) and the best lunch was at the Six Toed Cafe for $15, including drink and tip.