Key West: A Breath of Fresh American Air

Sacramento, CA  |  By David Dickstein
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Key West Aquarium is home to 100 species of marine life. Photo by David Dickstein

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The Key West home of late, legendary American novelist Ernest Hemingway is a big draw. Photo by David Dickstein

With growing concern over cruise passenger safety in certain foreign Caribbean ports, Key West is a breath of fresh American air. No unlicensed cab drivers or tour guides screaming for your attention as you leave the port, no violence associated with drug cartels, and no concerns over drinking the water. And one more plus for U.S. citizens: no passport required.

So, while Key West has the makings of a Yankee doodle dandy cruise port, don’t for an All-American minute think it drips with mom, baseball and apple pie. In this southernmost corner of the continental United States, a mere 90 miles from Cuba, it’s more like Ernest Hemingway, sport fishing and key lime pie.

The aspirational phrase of “One Human Family” is Key West’s official motto, but if the community needs a temporary slogan to capture its inclusive and stalwart spirit post-Irma, it should be “Open for Everyone’s Business.” The port welcomed cruise ships only two weeks after the devastating Category 4 hurricane at its historic 130 mph winds pummeled the Florida Keys. Fortunately for the tourist destination, Key West fared better many of its neighbors as landfall on Sept. 10 was 20 miles to the east. Structural damage was minimal, but the colorful city of 23,000 full-time residents still dealt with the loss of electricity and access to clean water. Not that Key West doesn’t have experience making do already; located closer to Havana than Miami, and with just one road connecting it to the mainland, being independent and plucky comes with the tropical territory.

So is being laidback. Visitors wanting a taste of that Key West lifestyle will find it easier than one of the countless “gypsy chickens” that freely strut around town. And while Key West doesn’t judge those who vacation in the slow lane, the beauty of this town is it also appeals to tourists looking for more to do than just nibble on sponge cake and watch the sun bake, to borrow from Jimmy Buffett’s signature song, “Margaritaville,” partially written here. For the in-betweeners, here’s some recommendations:

  • Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum – Never mind that Debbie Downer types discount the American novelist’s Key West years as among his weakest and least productive – Mr. Hemingway’s pristinely maintained home of roughly 10 years is still a must-see. An hour-long guided tour ($14 adults) pays respect to the Pulitzer and Nobel prize winner’s storied life as a Floridian, from the works he penned here, including “To Have and Have Not,” to his six-toed cats, some with descendants that still roam the grounds in hopes of purring on the laps of feline-loving visitors.
  • Helicopter tours are often the most expensive shore excursions on the list, but Air Adventures makes the thrill affordable with rides starting at $69. Visitors coming by land or sea take to the air to spot dolphins, stingrays, sea turtles and other marine life.
  • Harry S Truman Little White House – Odds are that Donald Trump will eventually pick Florida for his presidential library, but until then, Truman’s winter White House remains as the Sunshine State’s only presidential museum. The 33rd commander in chief spent 175 days of his term here, mostly on doctor’s orders to be in a warm climate. Originally built in 1890 on what was a naval station, the house was converted from an officer’s quarters to a single-family dwelling in 1911. One year later William Taft became the first president to visit, and since then four others have signed the guestbook in addition to Truman. Tours run several times daily.
  • Key West Aquarium – Key West’s first tourist attraction is humble with just over 100 specials of fish, turtles and birds, and its most popular spots are a touch tank and wherever there are feedings. The Monterey Bay Aquarium it’s not, so don’t think you need to spend the day there or $50 for an adult ticket. Here, we’re talking an hour or two and $14. Yep, old school … of fish.
  • Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory – Lepidopterophobics and ornithophobics beware, but for everyone else, seeing 60 butterfly species and 20 exotic bird species flutter around a glass-enclosed habitat should be highly enjoyable and relaxing. The attraction ($12 adults) doubles as a climate-controlled botanical garden with cascading waterfalls. An art gallery and learning center add to the experience.
  • Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium – Disproving the myth that if you’ve seen one Odditorium you’ve seen them all, the Key West attraction ($17 adults) has at least two things the other 30-plus don’t: a shrunken human torso and a typewriter once owned by Hemingway. There’s plenty more that’s cool and amazing as spread across 10,000 square feet and two floors on touristy Duval Street. If the taxidermized two-headed animals and vampire-killing kit don’t excite you, the hour or two of air-conditioning will.

A fun and relatively easy way to get to these and other points of interest is the Old Town Trolley ($31 adults). Pick it up at any of 12 stops, then hop off and hop on as you wish or stay on to get the full 90-minute tour. Stop 11 takes you to the butterflies and the most obligatory and falsely advertised picture spot in town: the giant concrete buoy that marks the southernmost point in the continental U.S. The true point is on a private island 10 miles farther south, but let’s not share that spoiler with those waiting in line for the ultimate Key West selfie.

Adding in the array of watersports on or in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, not to mention restaurants, bars and stores with more character than a Hemingway novel, Key West has plenty to offer the day-tripping cruiser, the week-long vacationer, or whatever duration of stay your little, wanderlustful heart desires.

Check it out at: Florida Keys Tourism Council: fla-keys.com

Key West Aquarium is home to 100 species of marine life. Photo by David DicksteinThe Key West home of late, legendary American novelist Ernest Hemingway is a big draw. Photo by David DicksteinBooze isn’t the only thing with a kick at Captain Tony’s Saloon in Key West. Photo by David DicksteinAccuracy aside, this marker for the southernmost point in the continental U.S. is one of the nation’s most photographed landmarks. Photo by David Dickstein