Travel, United States

My Guide to Key West Escape: Part II

It is never unpleasant to wake up to the rustling of palm trees, sunlight streaming in large balcony doors (which have been left open for the breeze) and the calm of Caribbean water.  In fact, getting up at 6am for an early morning breakfast before the REAL tourists rouse is almost serene and peaceful.

We had agreed the night before that Friday would be the day when we’d tour the entire island, making Saturday our day of relaxation.  Thus, we busted out the map of Key West and chartered our exploration path.  First, we needed feuling so we headed down Duval St. to La Te Da, a french bistro/Bed & Breakfast.  When you walk up the stairs and into the veranda, you immediately feel like you’re in a hidden house in the Hamptons.  Everything is luxurious, private, yet comfortable.  You feel as though you are having breakfast on someone’s patio, overlooking the exotic pool in the middle of the property.  The staff there was so wonderful and warm, even furthering your experience there.  We decided to celebrate our first full day on the island and each order a mimosa and the omelet special.  When the mimosas arrived, we were pleasantly surprised that they came in red wine glasses – what a better way to start the day!

After we were nourished and ready to go, we headed back down towards Whitehead St. to begin our self-guided historic tour.  First stop – The Key West Lighthouse.  According to my research, “Built in 1847 to aid ships navigating dangerous reefs off the lower Keys, the tower was originally 46 feet in height and powered by 15 oil lamps with 15-inch reflectors.  It was extended to 86 feet in 1894 to include 88 steps, which visitors can now climb.  It was deactivated in 1969.”  We walked through the tourism office and into the area where the huge lenses were kept and out the other door.  As we got closer to the lighthouse and looked up, we realized it was a lot bigger than we thought and we were in for quite a workout.  In addition, we had just seen Shutter Island the week before 🙂 With one big sigh, we began our ascent.  The first thing I noticed – the iron steps were bolted in and slightly rickety.  Going up really wasn’t a problem though, as the reward at the top is the amazing 360-dregree view of Key West and beyond.  Going down.. well, I’ve never had a sense of vertigo before and never knew my legs could (eventually) be THAT sore.  (I’m convinced that the family that ran this lighthouse had to be in pretty great shape.)

After our mini-workout, we wandered across the street to The Hemingway House (which I wish I could rebuild on another spot of land in Key West for myself).

In 1931, Hemingway and his wife Pauline moved to Key West (after being encouraged to visit, via his fellow writer John Dos Pasos), upon her Uncle Gus purchasing the spanish home for them.  For the next eight year years, they continued to inhabit and decorate the expansive dwelling, including adding a $20,000 pool in the mid-1930’s, hanging Hemingway’s large-game prizes from his African safaris, and throwing in 19th century European decor for good measure.  When they divorced in 1939, the house became an overnight station in the 1940s and 1950s before he died in 1961.

The first thing you notice about the house are the 360-degree wrap around porches on the first and second floors.  Given that it was a cool day, you could envision yourself in a rocking chair, overlooking the pool or hidden gardens.  Once you enter, the first floor seems small and narrow with grand paint colors and decor.  It goes from Southern-style mansion on the outside to Euro-colonial on the inside with just one step.  However, the most fascinating of rooms on the first floor was the kitchen.  Given that it was built in the 1930s, it was one of the most advanced kitchens of their time, including a stove, oven, refrigerator and dishwasher.  It was a small little nook in the back, usually reserved for a mud room or laundry room today.

When heading upstairs, you notice how dark it seems and how again, so many of the rooms seemed so narrow, given the enormous exterior.  Since it was mostly just the two of them living there – they had one bedroom (where two of his legendary cats live), a dressing room (with fireplace) and a true 1930s bathroom that had never been remodeled.  However, what I loved most about the house was that almost every room on the second floor had double french balcony doors leading out to the porch.  Heading out through Hemingway’s bedroom, we took the back stairs to his detached office.  Considering this is where he spent the bulk of his time, it was almost surreal to see it.  It was expansive and sure enough, another cat was sleeping away on his rocking chair. 

If that wasn’t enough, the backyard and guest house (now public bathrooms) completed our historic home tour.  The first thing you notice about the pool area is that it screams “I want to throw a party”.  The areas surrounding it are expansive, but have a hidden/exotic quality to it.  Following this are hidden paths to little gardens throughout, including a little bridge over a koi pond – very ritzy for the 1930s.

When our tour was complete, I let out a sigh – it was the perfect house. 🙂

By now, our legs feel a little like jello but, we had more to see.  Next up:  My boyfriend’s request: Ft. Zachary Taylor.

The street that leads to Ft. Zachary Taylor  is military housing, which of course opens to the Naval base.  When you veer left at the guard gate, you feel as though you’re tresspassing but in fact, you’re beginning a mile-and-a-quarter trek to the fort.  When you arrive, it doesn’t look like much of anything, as most of it is in horrible disrepair (due to batteries, canon balls and other ammunition stored until 1970).  What is of interest are the canon windows and what you see on the other side.  Although there is a moat of sorts around the fort, there are extremely large geometric art sculptures about 200-300 yards past that.  What’s more interesting is that these sculptures are precisely placed across from these canons, as though they were meant for canon-shooting accuracy.

By now, our legs are SCREAMING so we decided to take a break on Key West’s only public beach, which happens to be right next door to the fort.  It’s a hidden piece of paradise, as you have to go through a pine cone forest of sorts to get there.  It was a nice break before the next stop on our tour: Mallory Square.

By now, it’s about time for refeuling and what better way than to head back down Duval and into one of the MANY establishments on the island: Willie T’s.  Willie T’s is a very “dive barish” place with two distinct features:  1) The dollar bills tacked to every available wall and ceiling space in the place that have been signed by tourists from all over the world and 2) The tree that seems to be growing out of the band stage.  Since we had a lot more to see, we ordered nachos and two native drinks: Key lime mojito and key lime frozen margarita (which I wish I had gotten the recipe for).

After our rest stop (hopeful that our legs wouldn’t give way), we contiued the 2-mile trek to Mallory Square (the cruise ship side of the island).  There, we wandered around and admired three-story sculptures, hidden shops and of course, had to see the very Disney-like Shipwreck Museum.  Although the admission price seems high, the experience is worth it.  There is a very “animated” tour guide who pretends to be a shipwrecked captain, showcasing everything that had been pillaged from these wrecked ships that sank right off the coast.  Each and every artifact in the museum was rescued goods, including a 60-pound silver bar that had sank not once, but twice.  It was quite amazing what had been recovered, including a maiden from the front of a ship, bales of cotton, wine, gold, silver and other amazing treasures.  We decided that our first stair-climbing expedition wasn’t enough punishment so we headed up the shipwreck tower to get yet another view of the island.  As a reward, we went down to the only basement on the island (one feet below sea level) to sit and see the video on why this museum is so important.  According to the video, when someone yelled “shipwreck ashore” people dropped what they were doing to recover the items that floated onto the beach – it became a source of income for them.

As we started our trek back to the other side of the island, we made one final stop – The Little White House.  Built in 1890 as a two-family dwelling, President Truman used this as a vacation place from 1945 – 1953, as well as a source for government meetings (it was the location of the creation of the Department of Defense). The last known use for government activity was in 2001 when Colin Powell held peace talks there.  In 2010, the government is selling most of the property, which includes some of the largest houses on the island (which are also considered historic properties).

Our total of six miles was clearly not enough for us, as we headed back to relax on hammocks for about an hour before changing and heading back out to Duval St. for a night out.  However, it was in agreeance that a pedi-cab was probably a better way to go than to walk. 

Our first stop was to Nine One Five – another bed and breakfast with a fabulous restaurant.  We decided to start with an appetizer to see how we felt but more of the reason why we stopped there was because it was one of very few places that had an outdoor patio, right by the street.  From there, we headed to The Martini Bar – a brand new bar with a fabulous menu of martinis and a chill vibe – something you’d see in San Diego.  However, our fun was short-lived, as we both realized how truly tired we were.  So, we headed back towards the resort and stopped off at The Strip House for a drink before getting a second win and playing life-sized chess (I lost).

Stay tuned for Saturday’s fun.

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