Saturday, September 21, 2013

Key West

The run to Jacksonville was easy enough dropping the rental off and after saying goodbye to  my new friend Angela, easily made the gauntlet of security to my gate. A short hop got me to the vast Miami Airport. The flight to Key West was parabolic in that as soon as we got to altitude, the pilot turned on the seat belt sign and announced we were on final approach to Key West International.

Not being sure where Islamadora was became clear when Dianna picked me up. As it turned out, although advertising they were "close" to Key West, the resort was, in reality, about 78 miles north of Key West. Islamadora is a recently incorporated community made up of several small islands at the halfway point between Miami and Key West. So each day we returned to Key West, we had to make a 156 mile round trip, about a two hour drive one-way, along the mostly two laned but scenic US 1 Overseas Highway, always on the lookout for Key Deer (yeah...little cute things live on the island chain), with speeds that vary from 30 to 55 miles per hour. Thank goodness for unlimited mileage car rentals.

Right across the street from our resort, the Islander Bayside, was the  Green Turtle Cafe. First night I had the blackened Tuna and Dianna had the Tortellini and the bread pudding was melt-in-your-mouth good. The wine shop next door, thankfully, had just begun stocking Dianna's favorite Barefoot Moscato wine.

Key West is a fun place with lots to do. The name comes from the Spanish "Cayo Hueso" (Pronounced kayo weso]). It literally means "Bone Island" or "Bone Cay" (a low-lying island). When Ponce de Leon came by in 1513, the island seemed littered with the bones left by the former natives who did battle there. The southern most point in America and a stones throw from Cuba (90  Miles), Key West has always been a destination for tourists and criminals alike. Developing the Keys (and Florida for the most part) was due to Henry Flagler. Mr Flagler was the co-founder of Standard Oil and when he got out of the business decided to become a philanthropist. He did a lot of traveling and at one point made his way to Florida. He fell in love with the place and became it's biggest cheerleader. He decided to develop south Florida and began building a railroad from Miami to Key West.

This was  a daunting task and was frequently interrupted by hurricanes the worst of which was the big  storm of 1935. A giant sea surge and 200 mile-per-hour winds killed about 400 people, 300 of which were out of work WPA World War I Bonus Army vets recruited for the work. Islamadora has a memorial to the memory of those who lost their lives. US 1 is  the original roadbed of that railroad including some amazing over-water bridges the longest of which is the "7 mile bridge"  over open ocean.

Anybody who has visited an old port city will feel right at home. Lots of places to eat and drink and some museums and points of interest along the way. Our first venture was an afternoon run to catch a late lunch so we could get on board the Ghosts and Gravestone tour at 8 pm.

What you find out right away is that parking is at a premium in downtown Key West.  There is little, if any, street parking available and what's there is permit resident parking only. So we had to find pay public lots. I would recommend the parking structure at  the Westin resort. Very close to the main attractions, well lit and secure.

We made our way toward Duval which had most of the restaurant/bars. There we walked into Sloppy Joe's . Not the original restaurant but one of the most famous. The original bar is down the street where Captain Tony's Bar  is now and where Ernest Hemingway spent many a day and night drinking and hanging out with his friends. Ernie spent many years living in Key West where he penned several of his books. His home is a museum. Like most places in Key West kind of pricy but that day the live band was doing nothing but 70s and 80s tunes. Since the kids had gone back to school, there was a much older clientele there and we noted that many of the places we visited seemed to be catering to that generation.

We walked back toward Front Street and Mallory Square. Much of  that  area had been a Navy Base from 1823 to 1974. It began when Key West was purchased from Spain as an anti-pirating squadron to halt illegal trading of prohibited items and human trading within the Caribbean. It ultimately included a Sub base to patrol the straights between us and Cuba. There is also NAS Key West one of the first Naval Air Stations opened in 1917 that still operates today on the north-east corner of the island. Although Key West was part of Florida at the time of the Civil War (TWONA), it remained a Union held area during the war and assisted the Norths blockade of Southern ports.

Mallory Square was also ground zero for an attempt by Key Westerners to secede from America. You may recall the Conch (pronounced KONK) Republics efforts to leave the Union over a grievance with the Border Patrol. The Conch shell is a symbol of the city so much so that natives refer to themselves as "Conchs" and there is a tradition that when there is  a new birth, the family displays a Conch shell on a stick outside the home announcing the birth of a new Conch.

It was during the Cuban Boat Crisis where many Cubans were trying to make it to America to escape Castro's Cuba. At that time the rule was, if you could make landfall, you could claim asylum and we couldn't send you back. So the Border Patrol set up checkpoints in Key West forcing people to prove their citizenship whenever they got stopped. This caused a serious backlash and, unable to stop the abuse, many organized to secede and remove the Feds from their shores. There was even a brief battle in Key West harbor between the forces of the Conch Republic and the Coast Guard involving a lot of squirting water and firing of loaves of bread at the Coast Guard vessels. It was all in good fun and the Conchs did ultimately surrender to the Feds but it did bring the issue to the forefront and led to the cessation of the checkpoints. The Conch Republic still lives on with many residents and businesses still displaying the Conch Republic's flag around town. The battle has been celebrated every year since.

Oh yeah, the haunted tour...Anyone who has been to Key West hears the story about Robert the Doll. The doll belonged to artist and writer Robert Eugene Otto. Eugene was given the doll in 1906 by a Bahamian servant who was skilled in black magic and voodoo and was displeased with the family after they fired her. Soon afterward, it became clear that there was something eerie about the doll. Eugene's parents said they often heard him talking to the doll and that the doll appeared to be talking back. Although at first they assumed that Eugene was simply answering himself in a changed voice, they later believed that the doll was actually speaking.

Neighbors claimed to see the doll moving from window to window when the family was out. The Otto family swore that sometimes the doll would emit a terrifying giggle and that they caught glimpses of it running from room to room. In the night Eugene would scream, and when his parents ran to the room, they would find furniture knocked over and Eugene in bed, looking incredibly scared, telling them that "Robert did it!". In addition, guests swore that they saw Robert's expression change before their eyes.

Besides the usual stories of haunted places, our tour guide pointed out the large number of homes we passed that had blue colored ceilings to their porches. He explained that many Southerners suggest that blue porch ceilings originated out of the fear of "haints". Southerners have a name for the ceiling paint used on porches – the soft blue-green is referred to as “Haint Blue” (Sherwin Williams Paint has a listing...if I'm lying I'm dyin').

“Haints" are restless spirits of the dead who, for whatever reason, have not moved on from their physical world. Haint Blue, which can also be found on door and window frames as well as porch ceilings, is intended to protect the homeowner from being “taken” or influenced by "haints". It is said to protect the house and the occupants of the house from evil. According to the guide, a problem arises when people paint the blue prior to checking to see if any spirits are already in the home. also works in reverse. Spirits apparently can't leave a house with Haint Blue on the outside so they get caught inside. Hopefully they're nice spirits....opps.

More about food....A word about Key Lime Pie. Both Dianna and I are big fans of Key Lime Pie since our first trip to Florida way back in the 80s. Now we found ourselves in the birthplace of the stuff. As you may know, the Key Lime, also known as the Mexican lime, West Indian lime or Bartender's lime is in a class all of its own. Much smaller than regular "Persian" limes you get at the store, the key lime ranges in size from a ping-pong ball to smaller than a tennis ball. The peel is thin, smooth and greenish-yellow when ripe. The flesh is also greenish-yellow and full of highly poly embryonic seeds (two or more plants from one seed). The interior is divided by 10 to 12 segments, quite juicy and has a higher acidity than regular Persian limes.

As it  turns out, there are many Key Lime Pie bakers in town claiming to be the best but I think we found the one. The Key Lime Pie Factory  at 412 Greene Street they make them right there in the shop and use 8 eggs in their recipe making them extra stiff, tangy and creamy. The graham cracker crust wasn't squishy and just crunchy enough to require you to push your fork through to snap off a piece. Awesome.

Our second day was to eat, walk and shop. Recalling most of downtown Key West was a Naval Base, there was an interesting stop we had to make. President Truman began a long standing  tradition for Presidents to visit the island. A former Officers Quarters on the base became a vacation spot known as the "Little White House".
Truman really liked the tropical feel of the place and made several trips there to relax and work. The Officer's Quarters had been a duplex but the Navy remodeled and combined the two making a 9,000 square foot home for the President. Truman began vacationing there in 1946 and most of the place and the furniture remain the same today. Several Presidents made it their vacation spot from Eisenhower to the Clintons. It was abandoned for 12 years when the Navy closed the base but was purchased by a private party who refurbished it as an historic landmark and occasionally still is used as a government retreat and meeting place. When the Secret Service needs the place, they station snipers on all the rooftops and make the local residents stay in  their homes with the curtains drawn.

Whenever we go to a place, we like to visit their cemetery. Cemeteries can give you a snapshot of a towns history and tells you more about how they might of lived. Key West has a traditional above ground cemetery typical of the coastal south. But more importantly it is the resting place of men caught in a terrible moment in history. It contains the remains of 62 of the 266 dead seamen from the Battleship USS Maine (229 are buried at the USS Maine memorial at Arlington National Cemetery).

The Maine had been stationed at Key West. Tensions were high between the Spanish still holding colonies in the Pacific (think the Philippines), Caribbean and especially Cuba. The Maine was anchored in Havana Harbor taking a break from it's anti-pirating and flag waving patrols when suddenly, on February 15th, 1898, the Maine inexplicably blew up and sank killing and injuring most of the crew. Until recently what was thought to be a limpet mine may actually be the result of a coal fire below decks causing an explosion.

Navy Plot
The nearest US military hospital was in Key West and all the dead and wounded were brought there. They quickly filled up the Marine Hospital so the Basilica of Saint Mary Star of the Sea Church school emptied classrooms and the wounded were cared for there. Those that died were buried in a beautiful plot at the Key West Cemetery. The result was a sense of Spanish treachery and with a cry of "Remember the Maine!, to hell with Spain!" (helped along by the sensational Yellow Journalism of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst), America went to war with Spain, got Teddy Roosevelt up San Juan Hill (well actually, it was Kettle Hill), got Spanish holdings here and all over the Pacific, propped up the new Cuban government and set the stage for the Cuban Revolution and resulting in our continued embargo of that country for the last 60 years.

Definitely worth a return trip, we learned Key West is a popular stop for several cruise ships and that would provide us an easy return without airline tickets, paying for bags, the drive and worrying about parking.

And there is all that uneaten Key Lime Pie to get rid of.


  1. Are there any immigration checkpoints driving to the Key West? I know that the Keys are part of the US, but there are immigration checkpoints at different spots inside of the Key West, so please answer sincerely and only if you have physically driven from Miami to the Keys. Greatly appreciated!

    1. Unknown,

      While this reply is 4 years after the question, there are NOT any immigration checkpoints between Key West and the mainland of Florida. There is a Border Patrol presence, mainly due to the proximity of Cuba to Key West (-90 miles) and other island nations, from which immigrants come from, but there are not any checkpoints.

      I can qualify this as a resident of Key West for +5 years, as well as numerous trips there and back over the last decade.

      I am curious as to why the question is posed and the near demand that it be vetted.