Working with a whisper
Experience Key West’s low-key charm
Upon arriving at my Key West accommodations (Authors Guest House), I was cheerfully greeted by a merry group mingling in the pool, while drinking margaritas in celebration of a 60th birthday. I was immediately invited to join them in the drink for a drink. Welcome to Key West! This warm, laid-back vibe was extended to me by all those that I encountered throughout my entire trip.
The town is easy to walk or bike. The latter will allow you to explore even more. So ditch the car and head towards the waterfront to Mallory Square. I got to see the famous Dominique the Cat Man, with his feline tightrope show. And, it was here that I first saw folks using hydro-powered jetpacks. Mallory Square has a website that lists the performers for the day and the time of the Sunset Celebration, a tradition and must-see (as is taking a selfie in front of the concrete buoy marking the southernmost tip of the continental United States).
From wrecks to riches
On the square is an interesting museum, The Shipwreck Treasure Museum, a mix of education and fun. In the 19th century and even into the 20th, inhabitants of coastal towns often survived by scavenging among the flotsam of wrecked ships. The more dangerous the shore, the more the locals profited. Key West is one of the most treacherous, and its dangerous reefs contributed to it becoming the richest city in America per capita, from 1828 to the 1850s.
The museum, according to its website, “combines actors, films, and the actual artifacts from the 1985 rediscovery of the wrecked vessel Isaac Allerton, which sank in 1856 on the treacherous Florida Keys reef… wrecks would later be sold at auction in Key West with the wrecking courts awarding anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of the profit to the wreckers, depending on how dangerous and time-consuming the salvage operation had been.”
You will be led by Asa Tift, the master wrecker of Key West, who also built the imposing house that was later occupied by Hemingway and now contains a museum to the author. You will even get a chance to climb the 65 steps to the lookout tower.
On the water
Get on the water. Although Key West has but a postage-stamp-size public beach in its center, that should not prevent you from getting onto and into the water. I went on a combination sail, kayak, and snorkel tour.
We sailed to what is known as the backcountry (gulf side). Here we dropped anchor and got ready to kayak through the mangroves in pairs. Traveling solo, I was paired up with a stranger and felt totally relaxed.
We then went on to snorkel. We were pretty close to the Key West shore, so I did not experience the neon intensity found in the tropical fish that live near the reefs, but it was a pleasure. I was a novice, and the staff was great at giving me the lay of the land sea.
The high-water mark was the sudden appearance of a stingray gliding gracefully by. I was able to follow him with one of the guides, who cautioned not to get too close.
I suggest booking with Key West Eco Tours, which offers this 4.5-hour day trip on the Java Cat, departing in the morning or afternoon. They cap at six people.
Another way to end your day is to take a Sunset Cruise on a historic sailboat. The Schooner America 2.0 has a wonderful tour on a spectacularly elegant ship.
If you are interested in chartering your own boat, Sunset Sail’s fleet has four wonderful sailboats that provide sunset cruises.
Kicking back on land
Need a break? For amazing and unique ice cream flavors try Flamingo Crossing. Here you can try their unique Mangrove flavor and taste the things you’ve just been paddling in. You can also savor sour sop, passion fruit, and mango. The place is an adorable bungalow. Hang out on the porch as your ice cream melts in your mouth.
Another good way to get a lay of the land is to take a walking tour. There are a plethora of choices. So many that your head will spin. Pick the one that interests you most. I took a ghost tour at night and it was quite effective; throughout my trip, I got the willies each time I passed the sites we’d visited.
A great way to end your evening is to visit Piano Bar at the Pier House. It’s an upscale hotel and spa, so you may feel more comfortable discarding your flip-flops. I had the opportunity to hear original music one night from a local who wrote songs about colorful Conches (folks from Key West). I
found out about this performance in a local paper. I had such a good time that I returned another night, which was more like an open mic and people sang and played the piano masterfully. The bartender even surprised me by having their key tickler play one of my favorite songs, “My Funny Valentine.”
Key West is a place to kick back. It has plenty to brag about, but it prefers to let its treasures speak for themselves, without ostentation or fanfare. It wows with a whisper.
It is possible to fly, but I suggest coming in by bus. You could drive, but then you’d have to keep your eyes on the road. I came in from Delray Beach after visiting my family, which is a quite long ride. We had a stop in Miami, (another place you could start your ride), where there were great Cuban food trucks. Our next stop had a pirate-themed McDonald’s. I love kitsch.
Small colorful cottages with manatee and dolphin mailboxes will delight your peripheral vision. But what is most fascinating is the terrain, of which there is very little. There’s more water than land, and you are precariously balanced on a spit of it, or on the series of causeways over cerulean blue waters.
Authors Guest House: I had attempted to stay at the Blue Parrot Inn, but they were booked my first few nights, so they recommended their other property. I was not disappointed. I had my own Conch-style cottage. Each accommodation is named after a literary great. The pool is not large, but it is surrounded by a lush garden.
Blue Parrot Inn: I stayed in the cabana and main house. The pool was huge, and I was often swimming solo. Charming inside and out, with its gingerbread trim and airy motif. Both of their hotels were charming, but this one is a few blocks closer to town.
Harpoon Harry’s: I love a place with good grits—after all, we are in the South. This place has ’em and biscuits with gravy, as well as dynamite Bloody Marys and eggs Benedict with lobster or crab. It’s now also open for dinner.
Blue Heaven: This place is like dining in a rainforest—with a few chickens and cats underfoot. Here you can bask in local seafood, as well as in a few Caribbean and Cajun flavors.
Hemingway House: Full disclosure: I have a problem with Hemingway’s themes. However, his home is a highlight of the area. It was originally built as the home of Asa Tift, premiere wrecker. My favorite part was a Picasso perched unceremoniously on a wardrobe; a quirky ceramic cat.
The Little White House: The building housing this museum has a long history. “The house served as the Naval Station commandant’s house [from 1890] until March 1974.” In 1946, President Truman used it as his winter residence; thus it became known as The Little White House. It has also served as the site for several summits and conferences and the place where Eisenhower recuperated from a heart attack. The grounds are a lovely place to explore by foot or bike.
This article originally appeared in the January 25, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.