Awaiting the Return of Key West

One month after Hurricane Irma, we look forward to the Florida Keys' return as a tourist destination.

Editor’s Note: On Sept. 1, Kyle Whitecotton submitted the story below on Key West, detailing how its beauty and charm contribute to its immense appeal as a travel destination. On Sept. 10, the eye of Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys, leaving it in devastation. We continue with the story in an effort to celebrate the area and its inevitable return as a tourist destination. At press time, the Keys were temporarily closed to visitors, but Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastes told CBS Miami he was confident the community would rebuild, adding, “We'll be fine. This is the cost of living in paradise."

Assumed by many to be just another luxurious tropical getaway filled with the usual snorkeling, boating and beach-going excursions, Key West is often lumped in with other island getaways. Sure, Key West has warm, sunny weather, sandy beaches and endless watersports to pass the day. A dozen other islands make the same claim, right? This 7 square miles, though, is packed with anything but the routine island offerings, and it all starts with the drive down.

While visitors can easily fly into Key West International Airport or hop aboard the Key West Express ferry from Fort Myers Beach, a proper arrival is the breathtaking drive down U.S. Route 1 and the 113-mile Overseas Highway, a National Scenic Byway also known as the “Highway That Goes to Sea.”

The 3 1/2-hour drive from Miami along the Overseas Highway takes roadtrippers through Key Largo, the largest of the Florida Keys, along the six tiny islands of Islamorada, a world-renowned sport-fishing destination, and past the Dolphin Research Center amid the islands of Marathon. From the famous Seven Mile Bridge joining the Middle and Lower Keys, drivers will pass noteworthy sites like Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary on Big Pine Key and Perky Bat Tower on Sugarloaf Key.

From mainland Florida to the southern tip of the United States, drivers of the Overseas Highway will cross 42 bridges, encounter more than 30 islands, and pass through an endless spread of natural beauty set against a shimmering expanse of crystalline waters.

Perched at the very tip of the Florida Keys Archipelago, Key West is a mere 90 miles from Cuba. Declaring the island the southernmost point in the continental United States, a giant, red-and-black concrete buoy sits at the tip of Key West, accompanied by a host of southernmost-themed attractions including guesthouses, restaurants and bars. Backdropped by turquoise waters, this iconic landmark is a classic and often crowded photo opportunity. It also marks a unique sunset vantage point, and some claim that on a clear night it’s possible to see the faint glow of lights over Cuba.

Every evening, the warm subtropical sun expires into the Gulf of Mexico and commences the world-famous Key West Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square. Amid this historic seaport, once a commercial hub for delivering fresh fish, sponge and shrimp to Florida, a mesmerizing carnival of magicians, jugglers, tightrope walkers, fire-eaters, sword swallowers, clowns, psychics, musicians, artists and food vendors gather for an unforgettable artistic showdown.

Mallory Square is also the place to be for shops, galleries, restaurants and one-of-a-kind attractions like the Key West Aquarium, which opened in 1935 as the island’s first attraction; the Key West Shipwreck and Treasure Museum, with interactive exhibits and a spectacular view from atop a 65-foot lookout tower; and the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, the only fully accredited museum in the Florida Keys.

On the north end of the island, old blends with new at the Key West Historic Seaport. This half-mile harbor is home to a 156-slip marina filled with sailboats, catamarans and ferries that deliver dive, snorkel and sunset cruise expeditions. After a morning fishing charter, stop in at the Key West Turtle Museum or enjoy waterfront shopping and live music while mingling with the locals.

Then there are the lively offerings of Duval Street with iconic watering holes like Sloppy Joe’s and Captain Tony’s Saloon, art galleries with collections inspired by the local culture, and a slice of paradise at the mouthwatering Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe. Duval’s lively tourist strip is also home to the island’s New Year’s Eve celebration, the notorious 10-day Fantasy Fest, and the family-friendly Goombay Festival celebrating Bahamian, Caribbean and West African culture.

It’s difficult to imagine Key West without picturing the island’s most notorious denizen — Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s Key West years were his most prolific and helped inspire one of his most notable short stories, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” as well as the novel To Have and Have Not.

Today, visitors can tour his breathtaking house in Old Town Key West, where he and his second wife Pauline lived for more than 10 years. Today, the house is filled with the writer’s original furnishings, favorite artwork and an assortment of architectural details sure to impress even nonliterary types. Visitors will also appreciate the property’s sprawling garden, the stunning swimming pool that was itself an architectural feat to construct, and a clowder of 40-50 feline descendants from Hemingway’s own six-toed cat, Snow White, that call the property home.

Other famous Key West houses include Harry Truman’s Little White House, once a vacation retreat for Presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy; the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, filled with 18th and 19th century furnishings and a collection of engravings from John James Audubon; and The Oldest House in Key West, built in 1829 and filled with the original furnishings. 

The list of unique Key West offerings is extensive and includes the island’s historic and story-filled cemetery, a pre-Civil War fortress at the Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park and the remote Dry Tortugas National Park, which is one of the world’s most unique and bountiful eco-attractions and the site of a Civil War prison.

It’s clear to see that Key West is anything but a typical tropical vacation spot where the sand and sun and shops are all identical to the islands next door. This place has history, culture, and a freewheeling, fun-loving, party-without-consequence philosophy that gets in your blood and stays. So pack your flip-flops and leave behind your preconceived notions, and head south to the place where the sunset is cause for celebration. No one will blame you if you don’t come back.

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