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Cruise Port Review

Caribbean/Florida Ports of Call

Key West


Port City:
  • Key West, Florida
    Population:
  • Approximately 30,000
    Climate:
  • Subtropical, with average temperatures in the 70s and 80s
    Language:
  • English
    Currency:
  • US Dollar Key West is a different kind of paradise. Like a Caribbean island, it has palm trees, tropical breezes and lovely coasts. But this southernmost town in the United States, which is actually nearer to Cuba than to Miami, has developed a style and flavor unlike any other place in the Americas.

    Besides its natural beauty, the small island--only two miles wide by four miles long--is renowned for its colorful history, the laissez-faire attitude of its residents and its picturesque Conch architecture.

    The term "Conch" (pronounced konk) refers to just about anything that is native to Key West. You'll find Conch food, Conch speech, Conch style and just plain Conchs--the natives of the island. The word "conch" also describes a marine gastropod with a pretty shell.

    You won't need a car to enjoy the island. Just a short stroll away from the cruise ship landing at the waterfront is Old Town--a small district that seems to be constantly undergoing renovation and restoration.

    Old Town is the section of the island that draws visitors and seasonal residents back year after year. Similar to Historic Charleston or the French Quarter of New Orleans, Old Town is somehow always alive yet relaxed, with offbeat shops, restaurants and bars.

    Key West
    Key West has become a popular stop for cruise ships plying western Caribbean waters.
    Aerial Photo by Andy Newman/florida Keys TDC

    History

    Key West's history is made up of shipwrecks, pirates, yellow fever, wars and smuggling. It all started when the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León discovered it in 1513 as part of a chain of islands that he named collectively Los Martires ("the Martyrs"). Because a great Indian battle had previously taken place on the key, it was strewn with human bones when the Spanish explorers made landfall. Consequently, it was named Cayo Hueso (pronounced ky-yo-WAY-so), or "Bone Key." Today's name is a corruption of the Spanish appellation.

    Key West was purchased from Cuba in 1820, and settlement began in 1823 with a mixture of Bahamian sponge divers, Cuban cigar makers and refugees, wreckers and Yankee seafarers. The population grew in the 1900s as such diverse groups as military personnel, fishermen, artists, writers and eventually tourists were attracted to the area.

    In 1826 and 1831, respectively, a naval base and an army post were established on the key. During the Civil War, both these Union military installations were instrumental in defeating the Confederacy through the formation of an effective shipping blockade.

    A few years later, Key West was making history again when the USS Maine sailed from there to Havana, where she was blown up. This event triggered the Spanish-American War, which ended Spanish rule in the New World.

    War raged around the island again during World War II. In 1942, German U-boats sailed into the Florida Straits and the Gulf of Mexico, sinking 109 merchant ships around Key West in eight months.

    Some 40 years later, Key West received some rather unusual publicity. When a roadblock by the U.S. Border Patrol at the top of the keys disrupted tourism, the local citizenry decided to secede from the Union. The short-lived and thoroughly whimsical Conch Republic, born on April 23, 1982, is now celebrated in an annual festival.

    A FICKLE ECONOMY

    The economy of Key West has gone through many changes: wrecking, sponging, salt farming, cigar making, smuggling and tourism have all bolstered it at one time or another.

    The island's original prosperity resulted from salvaging cargo from sinking ships, or wrecking, as the practice was called at the time. The coral reefs that surround Key West and the neighboring islands made navigating these waters in wooden ships dangerous, and there were frequent shipwrecks. John W. Simonton was responsible for developing the locale as a mercantile and wrecking center in the early 1800s; by 1835, there were 28 vessels salvaging ships that had wrecked on the treacherous reefs.

    Later in the century, Cubans fleeing from Spanish rule in their homeland began arriving on Key West and established a prosperous cigar industry, part of which still exists. Meanwhile, Bahamians set up a thriving sponging industry. In 1912, the completion of Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad physically connected Key West to the mainland, and a new generation discovered the island. Unfortunately, the Great Depression of 1929 and a hurricane in 1935 that destroyed the railroad wrought economic havoc on the community.

    Today, Key West is once again connected to the mainland, this time by a road, and tourism is by far its major industry.

    ARTISTS, WRITERS & DREAMERS

    The laid-back ambience, combined with a magnificent natural setting, has long attracted American writers and artists, most notably Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Bishop, John Dos Passos, Thornton Wilder, Titian Peale, John James Audubon, Frederic Remington, Winslow Homer and Grant Wood. Today, more than 150 published authors call Key West home; several of them have won the Pulitzer Prize.

    Beginning in 1928, Hemingway lived here for many years, explaining once: "I like Key West because the people don't stare at me in the streets." He spent his days on the island writing, fishing from his 40-foot boat, the Pilar, and carousing.

    Harry S Truman also loved the island; he'd come to unwind from the pressures of Washington by fishing, swimming and chatting with the Conchs. He visited Key West 11 times while he was President.

    Perhaps the island's most famous resident today is singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett, whose Caribbean-flavored songs are anthems for islanders and adventurers from around the world.

    Sightseeing

    You should begin your tour on Duval Street, Old Town's main thoroughfare. The area is filled with restaurants, boutiques, a wide variety of shops and assorted landmarks such as the Key West Woman's Club and St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The Wreckers' Museum, flying the Bahamian and American flags, is situated on Duval Street in Key West's oldest house; it contains fascinating displays of ship models, marine artifacts, historic documents, and paintings and prints that tell the story of the early wreckers. A palatially furnished doll house is also on view. Keep walking and you'll pass the San Carlos Opera House and the Sociedad de Cuba, once the town hall for the Cuban community.

    The Little White House, located in the Truman Annex on Front Street, was a favorite working-vacation spot for President Truman. The 1890 structure was refurbished during the 1940s and has been completely restored as a presidential museum. Guided tours of the house and gardens are available for a small fee.

    At the corner of Whitehead Street and Truman Avenue sits the Key West Lighthouse, built in 1847. An adjacent museum houses displays of the lighthouse's history and provides technical information about its operation. The lighthouse itself has been restored, and at the top of the 88-step climb you'll get a splendid panoramic view.

    Just across the street, you'll see the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum, filled with mementos that the author brought back from Spain, Africa, Cuba and other exotic locales. The grounds are filled with lush tropical vegetation and a profusion of wandering cats. Frequently scheduled guided tours are often conducted by old friends of the famous writer.

    At the opposite end of Whitehead Street is the Audubon House & Gardens, the 19th-century home of Captain John J. Geiger, a harbor pilot and master wrecker. While drawing the birds of the Florida Keys, John James Audubon visited the site. Almost 200 species of birds live in Key West or visit annually, including the remarkably adaptable great white heron.

    In the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, on Greene Street, there is an extraordinary exhibit of historic and cultural artifacts collected from 17th-century sunken galleons. The exhibit documents Fisher's long search for the Nuestra SeĄora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, whose fabulous treasure troves are on view.

    The Key West Aquarium, on Whitehead Street, features coral shells, colorful tropical fish, sharks and other sea life. Knowledgeable guides provide entertaining tours. Besides the aquarium displays, there are touch pools full of intriguing sea creatures and shark tanks where feedings take place every day.

    The Curry Mansion Inn, an elegant Victorian structure on the corner of Caroline and Ann streets, was originally the home of William Curry, Florida's first millionaire. He made his fortune from lumber, selling ships' supplies and salvaging wrecks. The mansion is one of the most complete and best-preserved historic homes in Florida. It is now an inn and home to the current owners.

    Other sights of interest are the Key West Art and Historical Society's East Martello Museum and Art Gallery at the airport on Roosevelt Boulevard, which is dedicated to the history of the Florida Keys; and the Key West Cigar Factory in Pirate's Alley.

    Even the flora on this island are worthy of examination. With a frost-free environment year-round, Key West is overgrown with exotic plants and graceful banyan trees. For a special treat, you can visit Riggs Wildlife Refuge on Roosevelt Boulevard for a close look at wildlife in a spectacular natural setting.

    Perhaps the best way to get a genuine feel for Key West is to take the Pelican Path, a self-guided tour through Old Town. For a brochure that outlines the walk, stop by the headquarters of the Old Island Restoration Foundation at the Hospitality House in Mallory Square. Be sure to ask for directions to the famed Bottle Wall. This delightfully eccentric folk sculpture was recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

    If you are in Key West between January and March, you can enjoy the festivities of the Old Island Days, a celebration of the island's rich heritage. And in late April, Key West is alive with celebrations for the Conch Republic Days. The Battle of the Tall Ships, the Conch Strut Marching Band, the Pirates' and Wreckers' Party and Auction, and the infamous Bed Race and Parade all offer unique entertainment.

    The annual October Fantasy Fest, during which Duval Street is converted into a mile-long party, is Key West's outrageous answer to Rio's carnival and New Orleans' Mardi Gras. One of the best ways to see many of these sights is by taking a Shore Excursion. Check with your Cruise Director for more information.

    Sports

    Famous around the world for its fishing, Key West boasts over 600 varieties of fish in its waters. This is also a wonderful place to snorkel and scuba dive. Other options include waterskiing, boating and windsurfing.

    If you plan to go diving or snorkeling on the fabulous reefs that surround Key West, please keep this in mind: the rocky-looking outgrowths of coral are much more delicate than they appear. Try not to touch or bump into the coral; snorkelers in particular must remember not to kick or stand on the reef while they are resting. Any of these actions can cause grave damage to the coral, which grows at a rate of no more than two to three inches per year, and often much slower than that. A single careless action can destroy several years of growth. And there is another reason to avoid contact with the reef: a few species of coral can cause itching or even burning sensations when touched. A little caution can add greatly to your own and others' enjoyment of this unique subtropical environment.

    Shopping

    Shopping in Key West is centered on Duval Street and the area near the cruise ship dock. Once ashore, you'll be within a short walk of all the lively main streets of Old Town, where you'll want to browse through the variety of intriguing and unique shops. Or you can wander down the quieter side streets, where you can combine your shopping with sightseeing among the historic buildings and gardens.

    The selection of small shops is staggering. There are also scores of fine boutiques with the latest in American and European designer fashions, tropical resort wear and original jewelry; several art galleries featuring the best from local, Caribbean and Central and South American artists; and a seemingly endless array of souvenir shops.

    Photo by Andy Newman, Stuart Newman Associates

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