Key West has Ample Charm
Posted on March 18, 2019
By Paris Wolfe
The charm of Key West, the southernmost tourist point in the United States, is built on little things — gypsy chickens, polydactyl cats, happy hour, frozen Key lime pie on a stick, Mallory Square sunsets.
And, except for a campground, a steeple cross and a stained-glass window, most of these have recovered well in the year and a half since Hurricane Irma hit the Keys in September 2017.
As we often do, my partner and I got our bearings by taking a narrated hop-on-hop-off trolley tour. Drivers point out significant landmarks, bars and natural features. Some are famous, some quirky, all interesting. Designed as a 90-minute ride around the 2-by-4-mile plot, our Old Town Trolley tour took much of the day because we got off at various stops.
Perhaps the most famous stop was the two-story French colonial home where Ernest Hemingway lived during his 30s. The Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and fishing enthusiast spent 1931 to 1939 living with his second of four wives — Pauline Pfeiffer — opposite the lighthouse. In a second-story studio connected by a little bridge, he wrote “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “To Have and Have Not” and “Green Hills of Africa,” among others.
During our 30-minute tour, we learned that, during the Key West years, a sea captain gave the Hemingways and their two sons a white polydactyl cat named Snow White. Instead of the usual five toes, polydactyl cats have six or more toes on their front paws. Sailors believed these cats were good luck, and Hemingway was on board with that. Because he didn’t believe in fertility control, the cats multiplied. Today — with fertility under control — just 50 cats, many polydactyl descendants of the original cats, live on the property and freely interact with visitors. Well cared for, they have names such as Daisy Buchanan, Martha Gellhorn and Humphrey Bogart. All came through Hurricane Irma without a problem.
We walked from the Hemingway House to the Truman Little White House, an 8,700-square-foot house where the 33rd president, Harry S. Truman, spent 11 working vacations for a total of 175 days. Still 90 percent original to Truman’s time, furnishings such as the mahogany Duncan Phyfe dining table with 10 chairs and a small Duncan Phyfe desk are modest by today’s standards. The tour guide told stories about the man, dubbed “Truman the Human” by the media, who ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, founded NATO and supported Civil Rights.
Just as history got weighty, we returned to the hot February sun. There gypsy chickens bobbed across the sidewalk, lightening the mood. The chickens — the most striking are colorful roosters — strut the lower island like they own the place. Its common to hear cock-a-doodle-dooing in the trees. (Yes, the roosters fly into trees.) Before acclimating to their presence, I snapped copious photos with my mobile phone.
Their existence on the island has two explanations. Early citizens brought them as a convenient source of meat and eggs. During storms they’d escape and roam freely. Later, Cuban immigrants brought them for cockfighting. When cockfighting was banned, people released the birds to avoid being caught with them.
Whatever their origin, they hang out on sidewalks and wander into outdoor dining spaces during breakfast, lunch and happy hour. They are protected by law and should not be fed by visitors.
Back on the trolley, the driver pointed out the cottage where Tennessee Williams wrote “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Sloppy Joe’s Bar, where Hemingway spent many of his drinking hours. In the Historic Seaport, he noted a mural painted by marine life artist Robert Wyland, the same artist who painted the “Song of Whales” mural on the Cleveland Public Power building. A few blocks later, we stopped to determine whether Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe has the best pie on the island. Kermit’s is known for inventing the frozen Key lime pie dipped in chocolate. The white chocolate-dipped strawberry Key lime is certainly competitive.
We left the trolley again at the southernmost point of the United States accessible to civilians. People were waiting 30 minutes in line to take photos with a giant buoy stating that that Cuba is just 90 miles away. That’s closer than the mainland. No matter, the line for photos was too long for us.
Despite the trolley, our Fitbits got a 20,000-plus-step workout as we traipsed Duval Street to window shop and read happy-hour menus. When we were done riding, we indulged in happy hour at two of the alleged 84 bars on the 1.25-mile strip of commerce.
The day’s grand finale was the Mallory Square Sunset Celebration. Near the Trolley depot and next to the cruise ship port, Mallory Square is at the northern end of Duval Street. The gulf-side, brick courtyard becomes a festival about two hours before sunset every day. Swordswallowers, jugglers, psychics, musicians, art/craft makers and food vendors entertain and sustain waiting crowds.
With various tourist boats crisscrossing the gulf, the sinking fireball was less than spectacular on our watch, but the entire Mallory Square spectacle is a bucket-list moment for Key West visitors.
The Keys were an add-on for us. We were already in Florida, so we buzzed eight hours south from Sarasota to check Key West from our bucket lists. During the drive, I spent a good chunk of time staring out the window at teal ombre waters of both the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. The colors are supernatural.
Our ride down the 113-mile Florida Keys Overseas Highway — connecting islands with the mainland and including the seven-mile bridge (actually 6.79 miles) — took longer than I expected because of random traffic slowdowns. There’s one road in and out of the Keys and this 45 mph stretch with 42 separate bridges was it.
We were unable to find a campground for our RV, so we left it behind and took four wheels. February is high season, so even hotwire.com rooms were commanding $200-plus per night, before fees and taxes. That’s when, against the advice of others, I turned to Airbnb.com. There I learned you could overnight on a boat — renting just a bed or an entire boat.
We like privacy, so we chose to stay overnight on a 30-foot Catalina sailboat at Stock Island Marina. With all fees and taxes, it totaled $209 per night. Not bad to be a few miles from the entertainment center on Duval Street despite some spatial challenges when it came to sleeping. We stayed two nights.
On the Atlantic side of Stock Island, marina waters are mostly quiet. We rocked so gently that I didn’t notice. Well, I may have noticed a little after sipping some of Papa’s Pilar blonde rum from Hemingway Rum Company.
In the morning, walking to the shower room, I could hear the city’s roosters calling “wake up” to resistant sleepers. The overall effect was charming.
Hemingway House: 907 Whitehead St., Key West, 305-294-1136, hemingwayhome.com.
Hemingway Rum Company: 201 Simonton St., Key West, 305-414-8754, papaspilar.com.
Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe: 200 Elizabeth St., Key West, 305-296-0806, keylimeshop.com.
Mallory Square: 400 Wall Street, Key West, mallorysquare.com.
Old Town Trolley Tour: 201 Front St., Key West, 855-623-8289, trolleytours.com/key-west.
Truman Little White House: 111 Front St., Key West, 305-294-9911, trumanlittlewhitehouse.com.
Sloppy Joe’s Bar: 201 Duval St, Key West, 305-296-2388, sloppyjoes.com.