Travel | 2 comments
By: Zdenko Kahlina
No visit to South Florida is complete without a journey to Key West!
The ride from Miami to Key West took around 4 hours in our rental car, from which 3 hours were crossing the Florida Keys with amazing blue water below the bridges we were riding. We left Miami early in the morning so that we can travel during the day light, because this is very scenic drive.
Key West old town
But the weather prognosis was not all that good. Unusually high rainfall totals were recorded on Saturday, October 8th — more than 9 inches fell on the day of our driving. Still I drove through scattered, heavy downpours, making it at times for a very dangerous driving. Once we reached the Keys, the sky cleared and there was only sporadic shower here and there. Driving from Key to Key over all these bridges was a great experience. On the right we’ve got the Gulf of Mexico, on the left the Atlantic Ocean. Also we noticed the different colors of the water; it looked just beautiful! We crossed 42 bridges including the famous Seven Mile Bridge, before reaching Key West, some very long some shorter.
Key West Museum of Art & History
The red brick and terracotta Custom House features a main gallery of rotating art exhibits and smaller galleries with exhibits related to the history of Key West, Florida.
Key West – Old Town
The final stop on this road is Key West, our final destination for the day. This tiny island at the end of a big continent, that teems with color and life around the clock. Key West has the best of both worlds: it’s a colorful outpost where you can get away from it all and it’s a lively center of entertainment, shopping, and restaurants.
Houses on Duval street
Touristy Conch Tour Train
Sitting more than 200 kilometers out in the sea between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, Key West, is a vacationer’s paradise. While most visit this tiny tropical city for water sports and promenade on their main drag – Duval Street, it’s worth exploring the lesser-known features that make this sub tropical island special.
As we arrived to the Key West, we searched for the tourist Information centre, hoping to get a city map and learn where to leave our car. After a short stop at the information centre and with the small touristy map in our hands, we continued towards the old city. I made a right turn onto Roosevelt Boulevard and soon we were right in the middle of the old town. Free parking was easy to find… just look few blocks away (north) from the Duvall Street, which is the main drag for tourists alike.
Key West Maritime museum
Key West, actually has a fascinating history, much of which comes via the healthy smuggling trade of days in the past. Starting with rum in Colonial days and culminating with the tawdry drug heyday of the 1970s and early 1980s. Key West has a colorful history of smuggling, pirating, and the break-off industry, wrecking. You can learn stories about this city on your bicycle tour, or visit the Key West Shipwreck Historeum museum for starters.
The Key West Shipwreck Museum
If you are looking for the “main” road in Key West, you are likely seeking Duval Street. Here one can sit back and enjoy the wonders of people watching as there’s never a dull minute on Duval Street and its never too early to start. We strolled down the street passing by bars, cafes, rough-riding bikers, and other walks of life. Here, you will find all of the shopping and eateries that you could desire. You will see a lot of trendy places here. If you like art galleries, you will likely find some type of exhibition here.
Strolling down the Duval street
So, on this October day, we were strolling down the street in shorts and a T-shirt, with pleasant weather, while the rest of our friends in Canada were beneath an arctic air mass… and snowing even in Las Vegas!!
Amazing architecture on Duval Street
Stores on Duval Street
Within walking distance of this street are also some of the major attractions of the island such as the Little White House, Hemingway House, Lighthouse etc. Some other points of view include the Key West Cemetery, Truman Annex, Southernmost point and others. All these historical spots in Old Town that are best enjoyed by bicycle, rather than tour trolley or car. The architecture is definitely that of South Florida and you should see some of the art deco style and bright colors similar to Miami Beach. Key West is unique. It reminds us of some places in Mexico and the bars are open until 4 am!
Mallory Square waterfront
Mallory Square is a bustling waterfront with spectacular harbor views and a vibrant nightlife scene. Once a port for US Navy Ships, and where Cuban cigar makers and sponge collectors sold their wares, Mallory Square is a festive gathering place with wonderful seafood restaurants, art galleries, boutiques and gift shops filled with unique treasures. Street performers a few food carts & merchandise vendors. Spectacular place to see sunset but can be crowded. Relaxing way to spend some time, and a carnival atmosphere prevails. Fun!
Cuban influence in Key West
Vera having fun!
Harry S Truman Little White House
We walked to the Little White House in order to get some outdoor pictures and look around outside, since the weather was sunny and pleasant on our second day in the Keys. This is a great place to visit in a great location only two blocks aside from Duvall Street.
The Little White House
As Florida’s only presidential museum, the Harry S. Truman Little White House was the winter White House for this countries 37 president. Truman spent 175 days during 13 vacations in the home that is filled with original furnishing and memorabilia from Truman’s days. Presidents Taft, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter and Clinton also used the house. Guided tours offer guests a window into the world President Truman and life of a US president.
By the way, this is still an active Presidential location, meaning that current and former U.S. Presidents can still go there. Therefore, it is possible that at any given time the Little White House may not be open for a tour due to a distinguished guest using the house! So it may be best to call first before planning a trip just to see the Little White House. Of course, if you’re already in Key West, you’ll probably be able to find something else to do on the off chance the Little White House isn’t open for tours!
Lighthouse – above the trees
The Key West Lighthouse
The Key West Lighthouse was the first thing I noticed after parking the car on one of the streets near by. It was built inland (at 930 Whitehead St.) in 1847 because when it was at Whitehead Point it kept being toppled by hurricanes. These days it is hidden behind the trees that have grown up since its being built. Admission $6 adults, $2 children 7-12, free for children 6 and under. Daily 9:30am5pm (last admission at 4:30pm). The admission also includes the lighthouse keeper museum which is quite interesting.
Ernest Hemingway house
We also stopped by Hemingway house. Located at 907 Whitehead Street and nestled in the heart of Old Town Key West, this unique property was home to one of America’s most honored and respected authors. You can’t miss it, because there are always tourists around the house taking photos. And it is very close to the Lighthouse we just visited.
Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote here for more than ten years. Calling Key West home, he found solace and great physical challenge in the turquoise waters that surround this tiny island. Step back in time and visit the rooms and gardens that witnessed the most prolific period of this Nobel Prize winner’s writing career. “It’s worth the wait, even if the line is long, to tour Ernest Hemingway’s home and the studio where he wrote some of his most famous works.
The day was gorgeous and the sun was kicking, so after few hours of browsing thru the town we decided to find a beach and jump into the water. Key West is not widely known for its beaches. At the tourist “Information Centre” when we asked where is the closest beach, they responded with “Miami Beach”! They were serious, because Keys are reef islands and there are no real beaches in Key West… well, not completely true, because Vera and I discovered Rest beach and Smathers beach on the East side of the town (close to the airport)!
Popular Rest beach
Vera on Smathers beach
But it’s mostly pure rock line that aligns its coast so if your hotel doesn’t have a pool, find one! There are plenty of spots that do, such as Dante’s at the Conch Harbor Marina. We found one very nice pool totally unexpectedly – in the community hall, at Bahama Village! Head toward the southern end of Old Town, near the middle of Whitehead Street, where you will find Key West’s Bahama Village.
One place that many people are not aware of when they visit Key West, is the Bahama Village. If your idea of safety is suburban, Bahama Village may seem threatening. People are on the street, voice can get raised in greetings, dominoes click into the night.
Cinema at Bahama Village
Zdenko having fun with Merlyn Monroe
The Bahama Village is known as a part of Key West, that is located southwest of the downtown part; in the Old Town area. Not only is it a little village, but it actually covers 16 radius blocks; that is southwest of Whitehead Street and northeast of the Truman Annex, and is bordered by Fort and Louisa Streets, Whitehead and Southard.
One important thing that you should know before visiting the Bahama Village is that it is known primarily as a black neighborhood. Bahama Village is an old Key West neighborhood where many descendants of the city’s earliest Bahamian settlers and West Indian slaves still live. During the 18th century the Bahamian incomers utilized their knowledge of tropical architecture and plants to help make Key West what it is today. Also, it is named mainly because of all the original residents that were of a Bahamian ancestry.
Halloween is a big thing there
Ready for Halloween
Ready for Halloween
Zdenko with Captain Morgan
From the outside, the neighborhood appears weather-beaten and run-down, full of small wooden homes that look as if a strong wind could blow them away. But underneath those tin roofs are walls and floors made of Dade County pine, a sturdy, almost invincible Florida hardwood.
Some of the homes are painted bright Caribbean colors of pink, blue, and green, with purple bougainvillea vines adding a further splash of color. Taking a slow morning walk through the streets, you feel as if you’ve been transported to the islands – the ones on the other side of the Gulf Stream, that is.
One of the most known about affairs of the Bahama Village is the flea market. In fact, the entrance of the village, which is on Petronia Street, has the flea market. Along with being able to see all the variety of things at the flea market, you will also be able to go through different shops, restaurants.
Bahama Village swimming pool
In fact, it has now become a great but small little tourist attraction! Along with all the different shopping/eating stops, you will also find that the Bahama Village has public swimming pool! When we discover it, we just walked straight in (no charge!), changed into our swimwear and spent all afternoon there. There were only several other young people enjoying the crystal clear pool water. We really liked the time spent there, as it was good to rest our legs from all the walking we did before.
Zdenko enjoying time spent at this pool
When visiting Bahama Village, not only will you get to see what the tourist usually don’t see, but you will also be able to see much of the history of the village. In fact, there are many great galleries and cultural contributions of the many immigrants that were in the city. In fact, it is definitely a great local place to have fun while learning a little bit about history!
Vera and I didn’t hesitate to walk anywhere in this neighborhood. As a matter of fact we left our car there on the public parking lot by their Community hall and little park area. We felt very safe there.
Zdenko at the southernmost point marker
The southernmost point marker
Only two blocks from Bahama Village and the pool where we spent several hours relaxing by the pool, is the southernmost point in the continental United States. It is marked by this colorful buoy, where you can get your picture taken. I’ve been told this is actually still not the most southern point in the continental U.S. There are actually some private property close by that is more south but closed to the public. So technically speaking, this is the southernmost point in the continental U.S. freely accessible to the public.
Tourists taking pictures
This can just about be considered as a tourist trap, since this particular spot would not hold any interest if it were not for the concrete marker telling you that you stand as far south as possible in the continental United States. Of course, this point is up for debate since Key West is an island and therefore would not be part of the continental land mass of the US. From this spot, you are only 90 miles to Cuba, thus the reason why Key West has historically received refugees from there. The marker itself is at a bend in the road. Parking may or may not be available in the immediate area if you are trying to get that photo. Most people get the quick photo and go on to explore the rest of the town. There is not really much there other than the marker itself.
Key West Woman’s Club on Duval Street
Key West architecture
Key West architecture was one of my interests. Key West houses were built to withstand hurricanes and deal with heat and humidity. They used hand hewn wood put together with pegs because plaster cracks and decays in high humidity and nails were scarce. The houses were very elaborate with lots of gingerbread. They took advantage of the fact that heat rises and put ‘scuttles’ in the roof which could be propped open to let the heat out. Nowadays they have solar panels on the roof too. They had shutters which hinged from the top and overhanging rooflines (called eyebrow houses to keep the sun out of the windows. Another type house was the ‘shotgun house’ where the rooms were in a line from the front to the back door.
Amazing Key West architecture – Strand Theatre
Take a walk through the Old Town. Once you get off Duval you’ll find this is a great little village full of mystical experiences. Just watch out for the chickens! They are everywhere… It all began a long time ago when chickens were a part of everyday life in Key West – a source of food, eggs, and ill-fated recruits for the now-illegal practice of cock fighting. But slowly, as bigger grocery stores came to the island and made chicken and eggs easily available — and cock fighting was outlawed — the local nests went undisturbed, and the chicken population increased.
So, the Key West “Chicken Wars” continue, and the cameras keep clicking, and the locals keep bitching, and the chickens keep clucking, and basically it all just gives everybody something to talk about. For the most part, folks just continue swinging in their hammocks, totally unconcerned that a monster rooster might be squatting and squinting and straining in the palm tree over their head … or that a big coconut might be about to fall on their noggin and send them on to a more permanent and peaceful Paradise higher in the sky than any chicken can fly.
This was our leisurely itinerary, designed on the spot without any planning. We just followed our noses in the Old Town, and our walk was broken by many stops. Not to mention all the window shopping Vera did on the way! O man…
Looking over the sunset, beyond it, and thinking how close I was to Cuba. The ocean smells. The fresh fish… cold beer. This was the only place I didn’t care what brand of beer I had. As long as it was cold and refreshing, it tastes good to me.
Florida Keys Scenic Highway begins in Key West