This article originally appeared in the October/November 2000 edition of The CocoNet Telegraph, the official newsletter of the Virtual Parrothead Club.
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The recorded history of Key West begins in 1513, when Spanish sailors stepped onto rocky coral beaches littered with the bones of Native Americans and shipwrecked Europeans and named the island Cayo Hueso -- Island of Bones -- later corrupted into the English name Key West.
The island has a fascinating history. Key West has survived occupation by several governments, shipwrecks, hurricanes, economic booms and busts, scandal and celebrity. It has earned its living through varied trades, including salvaging shipwrecks and harvesting sponges, making cigars and smuggling illegal booze and drugs, and providing home addresses to politicians and gangsters and artists and musicians and writers and just plain working folk. Few other places in the United States, with the possible exceptions of New Orleans and San Francisco, can boast such a colorful and intriguing past. Visit Cyber Conch's Historical Chronology for Key West and the Florida Keys by Brooks White for a timeline of historical events in the Keys, stretching from 48,000-100,000 BC through 1992.
As Parrotheads count time, however, the history of Key West begins in 1972, when a young songwriter found himself awash on the docks of the southernmost part of the United States ... and decided that he liked it just fine. Scores of songs and semi-true stories written and told about those days have since made Key West a celebrated destination for Parrotheads hoping to catch a bit of island fever. Meeting of the Minds, the annual "phlocking" of Parrotheads organized and run by Parrotheads in Paradise, has been held in Key West since 1998. This year will bring many new and returning visitors to the island. They will walk Duval Street, visit the bars and beaches of this famous little town, buy t-shirts at the Margaritaville store and go home with souvenirs, sunburns, and hangovers.
But Key West has much to offer above and beyond the events of MotM. This article will touch on a few of my favorite things; but it is by no means a complete list of all you can see and do on the island. The inventory is in alphabetical order and includes websites and, whereever possible, addresses and phone numbers. I haven't made any restaurant recommendations (that's a whole other story), but I've included many links to websites that offer them; in particular, I would direct you to the amazing Cap'n Ron's Florida Keys Adventure Guide, a detailed chronicle of things to do in the Florida Keys listed by mile marker and loaded with great links.
I've coded the list as follows: ! indicates a recommendation from experience, and * indicates something that I've not yet done but which looks intriguing or has been recommended to me. My personal favorites? The Conch Train; the Green Parrot; Mel Fisher's Maritime Museum; Nancy Forrestal's Secret Garden. I'm sure you'll come away with favorites of your own. Have a wonderful time!
Audubon was only in Key West for one year, but this beautiful house is noteworthy as a fine example of those built by the ship captains and wreckers who made the island their home in the 1800s.
Captain Tony Teracino, ex-mayor of Key West and star of one of Jimmy Buffett's most famous songs, is the owner of this unique hangout. The walls and ceiling are covered with bras and business cards (there's a staple gun behind the bar to borrow if you want to leave yours), two graves in the floor, and the lyrics to "Last Mango in Paris" are still scrawled on the wall of the men's restroom. Try to flip a quarter into the mouth of the fish hanging outside and make a wish.
Board at Mallory Square or Roosevelt Boulevard
A great way to get an overview of the island. The Conch Train takes you all over Key West, showcasing the historical sites, architecture, gardens, notable places and people, and unique facts about the island. And yes, they do mention Jimmy Buffett. The train itself is fun, and slow-moving enough to offer you many great photo opportunities. This is my favorite "tourist" thing to do in Key West.
Henry Flagler opened Florida to the United States in the 1890s with his luxury hotels and the railroad that serviced them. He completed the Key West Extension line from the tip of the peninsula to Key West in 1912. His contributions to the history of Florida have left a legacy of many namesake streets, buildings and public sites. The Historeum offers exhibits and information on Flagler and his works, and the early days of Key West.
My favorite bar in Key West. Founded in 1890 and the first and last bar on US1, the Green Parrot is more a local hangout than a tourist stop, although it draws its share of out-of-towners. The best margarita I had in Key West, in an atmosphere that speaks of the Key West that Jimmy Buffett wrote his early songs about. Dogs allowed, but no snivelling, according to the sign over the bar. Check out their great website.
Ernest Hemingway is probably the most celebrated of the many authors who have made Key West their home. Not the only place he lived in Key West, but certainly the most beautiful and well known, is the Spanish Colonial home where he owned from 1931 until his death in 1961. The house displays many of Hemingway's possessions, including original manuscripts, and the gardens remain home to the descendants of the six-toed cats that were his pets when he was in residence.
WEST CITY CEMETERY [!]
Lane and Angela
The Cemetary (yes, the sign over the gate is misspelled ... but no one seems inclined to correct it) is a fascinating place. Since the coral bones of Key West lie not too deeply beneath its topsoil, graves are hard to dig and often fill with water, so above-ground crypts are prevalent. So are unique inscriptions, as one might expect from a city with an eclectic residency. Call and arrange for a tour, or simply walk the grounds on a quiet afternoon.
In the 1850s one of the biggest industries in Key West was salvage. Treacherous reefs that surrounded the archipelago took many ships to the bottom, and the islanders made a good living reclaiming valuables from the sea and beaches. Cecil B. DeMille's 1942 movie "Reap the Wild Wind," starring John Wayne, Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland, highly romanticized this dangerous and somewhat ghoulish industry. The film was based on a novel by Key West resident Thelma Stable, whose home, in which she wrote the tale, is now a vacation rental (http://key-west.com/accom/allsouth.htm]). The Historeum gives you the real story.
CONCHA HOTEL [*]
This historic hotel, built in 1925, boasts a roof-top bar, "The Quarterdeck" with one of the best views of the island. Check out their webcam.
Key West Waterfront
For years, locals and visitors alike have celebrated the sunset by gathering in Mallory Square. Street performers enhance the experience, but the real star of the show is Sol itself as it slips into the waters of the Gulf. Don't forget to watch for the Green Flash!
If you only go to one museum in Key West, make this the one. Mel Fisher began treasure hunting off the Florida Keys in the 1960s. He and his family and friends dove the island waters for over three decades, bringing up history from the ocean in the form of artifacts ranging from gold bars and jewelry to ships' weapons, furnishings and fixtures. The Museum will show you the treasures and teach you about the man and the shipwrecks that he hunted. Mel Fisher was a beloved resident of Key West for years, and his motto, "Today's the day!" reflected his unflagging optimism and enthusiasm for his life's work.
It's not easy to find, as the name implies, but the Secret Garden is one of the jewels of Key West. The garden houses an extensive collection of rare palms, orchids, bromeliads, cycads, and other tropical plants, as well as many rare and endangered Key natives. It is also home to a number of beautiful tropical birds, including macaws, parrots, cockatoos, parakeets and other species. Don't miss a chance to get away from the bustle of Duval Street and enjoy the quiet serenity of this island paradise. Visit her beautiful website for more information, and support the garden and the abandoned tropical birds with a generous donation.
TOWN TROLLEY [*]
Another good way to see the island and learn about its history and notable sites.
The real beauty of this gift shop is its location ... an old hotel that was Ernest Hemingway's first Key West residence. Pay the $3 and go sit in the garden, relax and listen to the recorded history of the building.
Although the original Sloppy Joe's building is now Captain Tony's, this address has housed the famous bar since 1937. It's a nice place, with memorabilia and paintings on the walls and flags of all kinds hanging from the ceiling. On a hot afternoon, snag a table by the French doors, order a basket of peel 'n' eat shrimp, and watch the parade on Green and Duval Streets. And check out their website for the webcam aimed at the bar and stage.
The Southernmost Point in the United States ... depending upon who you ask and how you define it. Can you say "photo opportunity"?
OF MARGARITAVILLE WALKING TOUR [*]
a.m. and 4 p.m. — reservations are recommended, as space is limited.
1 hour and 45 minute tour of Key West focuses on Buffett-related sites,
including clubs he used to play and his first house.
MORE INFORMATION ON KEY WEST AND THE FLORIDA KEYS
detailed guide of what to do and where to do it, milemarker by milemarker,
through the lenth of the Florida Keys. Loaded
with links to restaurants and attractions.
Humorous and informative, with information on events as well as locations to visit.
Both websites offer dozens of links with detailed information on historical and other sites of interest, restaurants, accommodations, car and other transportation rentals, entertainment, shopping, and just about anything you might want to know about Key West and the Florida Keys.
This will be my seventh year attending MotM in Key West. I've found some new places and things to do and see since I first compiled this article, which I've added below.
* If you go to Mel Fisher's Maritime Museum and want to buy a real or reproduction coin from the Atocha, don't buy it from the gift shop in the lobby; ask them to take you to the family's shop in the back of the store. Purchases there go directly to the Fisher family and salvage group. And there are beautiful things to see!
* If you go to the Green Parrot (which I highly recommend) try to go at a time that you're not wearing a Buffett t-shirt. The Parrot is a local bar, and the clientele isn't totally fond of Buffett. But the margaritas and the atmosphere are worth it! Also, the barbeque place next door is great.
* If you enjoy jewelry shopping and want to bring back a gorgeous piece from Key West, go to Whitfield Jack's shop, just kitty-corner from the Conch Republic Seafood Company (where you'll be spending a *lot* of quality time %-) ) and right next door to the Key Lime Shop. This man makes the most beautiful Key West, nautical, and marine life jewelry to be found anywhere. For a preview, visit his website at
and don't forget to follow the links to the fascinating story about how he became a jeweler in Key West. %-)
* Another great place to shop is Local Color, which is right across the parking lot from the Half Shell Raw Bar. They also have a small shop kitty-corner from Sloppy Joe's. The thing to look for at Local Color is the jewelry made from larimar,
a beautiful blue stone indigenous to the Caribbean. Local Color carries the best to be found in Key West; if you go to the small store on Greene, ask to see the photo album of their trips to the mine.
* If you're driving down, check out Captain Ron's Adventure Guide for great places to stop on the way down through the Keys. Two places not to be missed are Alabama Jack's on Card Sound Road, and the LorELei Bar
at Mile Marker 84 on Islamorada.
My favorite restaurants are the Conch Republic, the Half Shell Raw Bar, Pepe's (best breakfast in Key West), Blue Heaven, and Margaritaville, which has great food for surprisingly reasonable prices. I've yet to visit Louie's
but I hear that it's great; this is the bar that Buffett stumbles next door to in "Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season" ... he lived next door in those days.
Places you should stop and have a drink include Sloppy Joe's and Captain Tony's (of course), Rick's Upper Deck, the Green Parrot, Fat Tuesday, Schooner's Wharf, and Billie's original bar.
Enjoy Key West!