Positioned at the tip of Florida's strand of keys, Key West fancies itself capital of the Conch Republic (natives of the island call themselves Conches) and mecca of our very own Caribbean islands. As escapes go, it fits the bill with all the swashbuckling history and lure of Indians, pirates, business tycoons, artists, writers and vacationers in search of tropical ambience closer to home.
At one time, Key West (population: about 25,000) was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States. The reason? Bountiful Spanish galleons shipwrecked on the surrounding coral reef deposited their stash on the ocean floor, rewarding centuries of salvagers with gilded tokens. Twentieth century treasure hunter Mel Fisher is current record holder in these treacherous waters, hauling in about $400 million in gold and silver that went down with the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a 17th century Spanish galleon that sank 45 miles off Key West.
You can inspect the booty it took Mr. Fisher 16 years to find, and view a video on his winning technique, at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Museum located downtown. More salvaged spoils are on display at Key West's newest nautical museum, the Historic Key West Shipwreck Museum. A glimpse inside reveals a time capsule of everyday life in the mid-1800s.
Key West's southern exposure sparkles with a lot more than gold. The island's many unusual cottages and gingerbread mansions were constructed during the 19th century by ships' carpenters and reflect the architecture of their home ports in New England and the Bahamas, with a melange of Spanish, New Orleans, American Gothic and Victorian motifs. Historic Curry Mansion is a popular stop for a closer look at a decorative side of Key West most visitors don't expect to find.
Meandering streets lined with blazing bougainvillea and intriguing shops make biking and just wandering around a delightful experience. The best way to see Key West for the first or 15th time is aboard either the Conch Tour Train or the Old Town Trolley. You can board them at separate stations in the heart of town or pick up the trolley in front of many hotels and other specified stops on the island.
Ernest Hemingway put pen to paper in Key West, and Hemingway House, his home for more than 20 years, has spacious grounds and free-roaming cats. If you are on the island in July, it's easy to get caught up in the Hemingway Days Festival, the city's annual salute to one of its favorite sons.
The only American lighthouse located in the center of a city is across the street. The Key West Lighthouse recently was restored to turn-of-the-century condition and reopened in time for the August 1989 bicentennial observance of the American Lighthouse Service. The 140-year-old structure, operated as a museum the last 16 years, will enjoy further attention when renovation is completed on the adjacent keeper's quarters, which houses exhibits depicting the history of the lighthouse.
Nearby, Audubon House is another small museum jewel. John James Audubon stayed there while painting wildlife of the Florida Keys, and among the antique treasures on view is one of the artist's few intact Double Elephant Folios.
Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, Key West is closer to Havana, Cuba, than to Miami. In the mid-1800s, the art of cigar making came the 90-mile distance from Cuba to Key West and sparked a thriving industry before moving on to Tampa. Tucked along pedestrian alleyways, several small mom-and-pop operations still hand-roll cigars today, and the curious can come in for a closer look at how it's done. Naturally, you can purchase the aromatic smokes and have them shipped to friends.
The work of noted local artist Mario Sanchez gives special meaning to the cigar trade, with colorful scenes that depict his early childhood as a "roller" in a cigar factory. There his father worked as a "reader," reviewing Spanish-language newspapers and novels for laborers as they rolled the leaves.
Key West's Duval Street cuts an enticing swath across the island from Atlantic to Gulf and serves up the best collection of gift shops, snazzy boutiques and a not-to-be-missed department store called Fast Buck Freddy's. No trip down Duval is complete without a stop at Sloppy Joe's, Hemingway's old watering hole, or at Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe. Side streets offer even more exploration.
Duval Street really comes alive on the city's many festival days with street vendors and pushcart munchies like conch fritters and mouth-size bites of Key lime pie. Come October, it's the main haunt for Fantasy Fest, Key West's answer to an all-out Halloween bash complete with Grand Parade and outlandish get-ups.