Where the Offbeat Meet Presidents and Royalty

Where the Offbeat Meet Presidents and Royalty photo

Key West is America's southernmost city — where the land meets the sea. Long an artist's and writer's haven, it has always attracted the offbeat. It's rich in old-world charm, steeped in the lore of island people, and endowed with an exciting history of rum runners, pirate ships and Civil War intrigue. It's a hip place that has also played host to presidents and royalty.

It's a city where garbage trucks carry such signs as "Catering for Weddings" and "Call Us for, Snow Removal" in a city that has never experienced frost. It's a city where a fire station had to be closed because so many firefighters got arrested on marijuana charges. It's a city where an official eager to try out a new bus wrecked it before it could be put in service.

But Key West is also a place where even the rich come to get away. The most frequent phrase used to describe the easy-going life here is "laid back." There's a policy of live and let live, and no one seems to worry about someone else's lifestyle.

Key West overflows with interesting sights — all within a square mile of Old Town. The town is a little tatty in places like a dowager with mud on her high-topped boots. Lush tropical vegetation surrounds conch houses with tin roofs and Victorian gingerbread trim and an occasional widow's walk. A few have guy wires holding them down in case of a hurricane.

Conch houses are a blend of Victorian and tropical architecture, built on coral slabs and finished off with gingerbread decoration. Originally ship's carpenters built them using wood from salvaged ships, with dovetail joints to withstand hurricanes. They left many unpainted. Each has thick-louvered shutters and roof vents for better ventilation, plus a cistern underneath to collect rain water.

Of all of them, only two actually came from the Bahamas, then were assembled in Key West. These Bahama Houses each feature mahogany window sashes, broad verandas, and beaded siding. Ship's carpenters fitted many of these houses together with wooden pegs.

One of the best examples of peg construction is the three-story Audubon House, the first of the elegant Victorian houses to be restored. Though the house has Audubon's name, he never owned it or lived there, but only painted the trees in its yard. It belonged to a wrecker, Captain John H. Geiger, and his wife, who took in orphans from shipwrecks. Today, it houses a collection of works by Audubon.

The Wrecker's Museum, housed in the oldest conch house in Key West, contains exhibits showcasing the history of the salvaging industry from the island's early days. Its nine rooms contain period antiques, sea artifacts, ship models, and wrecker's documents.

With its history of salvaging, it's no wonder that Key West has become known for buried treasure. Mel Fisher discovered the Santa Margarita and the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, two 17th-century Spanish galleons that sank during a hurricane in 1622, 40 miles southeast of Key West. Fisher's Maritime Museum, housed in an old naval storehouse, displays some of the $20 million in bounty Fisher brought up from the deep-jewel-studded crosses, bejeweled daggers, vases, cannon, gold bars, and over 4,000 gleaming silver coins museum.

This same naval storehouse was originally part of the Truman Annexe, formerly part of the original U.S. Naval Base. You can still see some of the buildings from the base, such as Romaneque Revival Customs House, established in 1822 to control piracy in Key West, and now the home of the Key West Museum of Art and History. President Harry S. Truman spent nine vacations covering 175 days in the Little White House, built in 1890 on the waterfront as the first officer's quarters of the naval base.

The biggest tourist draw in Key West has to be the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, close to many of the wide range of Key West hotels. However, tours of the house contain more fiction than fact. Even though Hemingway owned the house for 30 years, he lived there for only a third of that time with his wife Pauline. He took the rundown home of a 19th-century merchant and turned it into a luxurious retreat complete with servants and a swimming pool. Imagine Hemingway at his typewriter creating some of his most noted works, including the short story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. After divorcing Pauline in 1940, he packed up his belongings and moved to Cuba with his new wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn.

Though not the usual tourist attraction, the Key West Cemetery has some unique tombstones. Because the island lies on limestone bed, people have to be buried above ground in stone caskets, many of which have curious messages on them. A grieving widow put "At Least I know Where He's Sleeping Tonight" on her husbands tomb. Or the ultimate I-told-you-so found on another: "I Told You I Was Sick."