With so much to do, it's good that time moves slowly in Key West
Aerial photo of Key West, Fla., the Southernmost City in Continental United States and the largest community in the chain of islands called the Florida Keys. (Florida Keys News Bureau / November 23, 2003)
It all starts with the final approach.
Heading south from the congested traffic and urban sprawl of Miami, the speed limit is a leisurely 45 mph on U.S. Highway 1 from Florida City, where mainland Florida ends, into the Conch Republic. At that rate, the 100-mile journey can take more than two hours, but the destination is worth the wait.
Steeped in history, fueled by the spirit of swashbucklers and artists, nestled against a backdrop of fishing, boating and wildlife, Key West offers a lot of the world within its roughly eight square miles.
You'd have to hurry to see it all, but that's not the island way.
Ernest Hemingway, of course, is the iconic face of Key West and his bearded countenance was long ago transformed into a marketing symbol for Sloppy Joe's, the Duval Street bar that he famously patronized.
For a better overview of Hemingway's life and career, a visit and guided tour of the author's home on Whitehead Street belongs on any visitor's must-do list.
At least a few of the tour guides bear a vague resemblance to Hemingway in the form of distinguished white beards, although it's fair to say that there are generally more Hemingway look-alikes on an average day on Duval Street than anywhere else on the planet.
Also assisting in the tour is the cast of more than 40 cats on the property, many of them descendants of Hemingway's famous six-toed felines. On my visit, one of them follows along from room to room, hopping on furniture to receive treats from the guide, who thankfully talks more about Hemingway's adventurous life than the history of the furniture.
Many of the tales revolve around his relationships with the women in his life, most notably second wife Pauline. She's the one who embedded a penny in the patio floor next to the pool that she had built to replace Hemingway's beloved backyard boxing ring. The pool was an unhappy surprise that the author repaid by dragging home his own — a urinal trough from the original Sloppy Joe's that now dispenses water to the many cats.
The tour also offers a glimpse of Hemingway's upstairs writing studio, where he worked on "Death in the Afternoon," "Green Hills of Africa," "To Have and Have Not," "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and short stories such as "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber."
Only a short bicycle ride from Hemingway's home and museum is the Harry S. Truman Little White House, where guided tours stop in the Spartan dining room, bedrooms and beside the poker table where Truman sipped bourbon and dealt cards with Cabinet members on his 11 working vacations.
Compared with Hemingway's larger-than-life persona, the Truman touch was understated. His presidential desk was no bigger than that of a grade-school student's.
Equally understated is the home of playwright Tennessee Williams, who is said to have written the first draft of "A Streetcar Named Desire" in the city in 1947. Unlike the Hemingway house, Williams' modest home at 1431 Duncan St. is not open to the public, although it still draws fans.
Not all the famous residents were writers, world renowned ornithologist John James Audubon cataloged and drew more than a dozen new birds during his 19th Century time in Key West. At the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens on Whitehead Street, visitors can see 28 first edition Audubon works.
Some of the celebrities who called the island home are more contemporary. One of singer (and author) Jimmy Buffett's first apartments, which he loaned for a time to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, was at 704 Waddell Ave. Not a tourist attraction, the downstairs unit is now part of a time-share complex.
There's more Thompson lore at the Sugarloaf Lodge, north of Key West on Sugarloaf Key. The author famously (or infamously) stayed there and wrote about his experiences in essays such as "Sugarloaf Key: Tales of the Swine Family," though the part of the resort that housed his favorite room was washed away in Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
"The family all knew him and had a great time with him," said Dee Zickert, a secretary at the lodge for 28 years.
Thompson, obviously, did his share of carousing in the Keys and ground-zero for social scene is still Duval Street, the stretch of clubs and restaurants that runs through the historic district.
The island's legendary sunset celebrations unfold at Mallory Square, where musicians, magicians, jugglers and other characters make a living in tips. Maybe.
"I'm proud to say I never moved back in with my parents," juggler and Key West native Reid Fierheller-Conklin announced to a crowd on a recent evening. "That's because I never moved out." At 19, he has already been a Mallory Square fixture for six years.
When the sun goes down (or before), there is no shortage of bars. Although Sloppy Joe's (201 Duval St.) is the most famous, its rowdy vibe is way more commercial than the earthy Capt. Tony's Saloon, around the corner at 428 Greene St., in the original location of Sloppy Joe's in the 1930s when Hemingway was around.
If you can resist the temptation of last call, there's plenty of outdoor activities worth waking up early.
Most revolve around the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, a perfect backdrop for deep-sea fishing, diving, snorkeling and kayaking.
If Key West isn't far enough from civilization, find a way out to the Dry Tortugas, a remote national park 70 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico that's accessible only by daily ferry boats or seaplane charters.
Either method offers an opportunity to see dolphin, sea turtles and other colorful creatures as well as shipwrecks including the Arbutus, the famous shipwreck tied to the fortunes of treasure hunter Mel Fisher.
Divers also can check out the "Wreck Trek Passport Program," which guides them on a shipwreck trail from Key Largo to Key West, a route that includes the Thunderbolt, a 188-foot cable layer and research vessel, and the 210-foot Adolphus Busch, a freighter featured in the 1957 film "Fire Down Below."
With so much to do, even in the laid-back Keys it might seem like time flies too fast.
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If you go
What: The Florida Keys and Key West is a series of islands bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico on the southern tip of Florida, about 160 miles south of Miami. From Key Largo to Key West, the islands offer a range of activities from watersports to historic sites and night life.
Getting there: Take I-95 or the Ronald Reagan Turnpike south to Miami, then continue south on U.S. Highway 1 to the Florida Keys and Key West. There also are flights into Key West International Airport, which is served by Delta, American Eagle and U.S. Airways.
Accommodations and activities. The Florida Keys and Key West offer a variety of lodging from major chains to bed-and-breakfasts and smaller mom-and-pop hotels in residential neighborhoods. Popular activities include fishing, snorkeling, diving, boating, bicycle and scooter tours of the landmarks in Key West.
Call: 1-800-FLA-KEYS (1-800-352-5397)