In the conclusion to her series on Eco-Travel And History In The Florida Keys, Ann Cochran explores the historic homes, shops, museums, and restaurants in the little town at the heart of the Florida keys.
Not long after arriving in Key West, one gets a sense of the town’s offbeat charm.
Many residents have come to this 2-by-4-mile island for a weekend and stayed forever.
Everyone from Tennessee Williams, John James Audubon, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Judy Blume, and Jimmy Buffett have called Key West home.
The Curry Mansion Inn and Casa Marina have appealing histories.
The Curry Mansion Inn was named for William Curry, Key West’s first millionaire. Curry came to the Keys as a penniless Bahamian immigrant and is said to have made his fortune preying on shipwrecked travelers.
His namesake hotel’s proprietor, Ms. Edith Anderson (age 86, she doesn’t mind revealing) tells great stories. Ask her to share how she and her husband came to own and restore the 1869 property.
Also, bring home the key lime pie recipe created in 1894 by a Curry family cook. There are 15 rooms in this property. While the older rooms have atmosphere and antiques, be wary of noise and foot traffic from people touring the inn during the day.
Casa Marina was built in 1920, a boom time for Key West tourism, by Henry Flagler and his Florida East Coast Railway company. It closed in the spring of 1932 during the Depression and has been opened and closed in cycles—during WWII it was leased to support the U.S. Navy.
In recent years, this elegant property with the longest private beach in the Keys was reborn to as part of the Waldorf Astoria family of hotels.
Key West claims to have the largest historic district on the National Registry of Historic Places. Although most of the homes are privately owned and off-limits, there are three key stops:Audubon House, Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, and the Harry S. Truman Little White House.
For more ideas on where to go and what to do, check out the Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Key West & The Florida Keys
Most come to the 19th century, American Classic Revival Audubon House for the first edition. There’s also tropical gardens, thought to be the best in the Keys. At the well-stocked gift shop and gallery, you can purchase an original or limited edition John James Audubon books.
Hemingway was the first well-known author to settle in Key West.
His Spanish Colonial villa had the island’s first swimming pool and is known for its six-toed cat colony. Visitors can wander freely around the author’s studio, bedroom and kitchen.
Visiting the Little White House, built for Naval officers in 1890, is like a trip back to the 1950s. It’s the beloved winter home of President Harry S. Truman. Truman is credited with introducing many Americans to the beauty of Key West through background shots at press conferences and other photo ops.
Touring the understated and comfortable home, one feels as though the former President and Bess might return at any moment. Many subsequent U.S. Presidents (and Jordan’s King Hussein I) have visited, dined and slept here.
I recommend the oldest restaurant in town, Pepe’s Café.
Known for its oysters and steak, Pepe’s opened for business in 1909.
For breakfast or lunch try the quirky Blue Heaven, which is in a shuttered blue century-old building that has a history of cock fighting, gambling and boxing matches refereed by Ernest Hemingway himself.
Roaming roosters add even more local color.
On the same street as Blue Heaven are two of Key West most unique shops, Besame Mucho and Wanderlust.
Don’t miss Kino’s Sandals. Roberto and Margarita Lopez fled Cuba and traveled 90 miles north to Key West a year after Castro’s revolution.
In 1966, they opened a store similar to one he had in Cuba, which sells hand-crafted leather sandals in many styles and colors, priced well under $20 for men, women and children.
Finally, say goodbye to the historic Keys at a small museum called the Flagler Station Over-Sea Railway Historeum.
Enter through a reconstructed section of the Key West railway station where you can watch historic film footage and tour an actual Florida East Coast railway car before motoring back to your 21st century life.
By Ann Cochran for PeterGreenberg.com. Photos by Chuck Cochran. Ann Cochran is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Visit her on the Web at www.annpcochran.com.
- Eco-Travel And History In The Florida Keys
- Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Key West & The Florida Keys
- Spring Fishing Guide Part One: Five Top Fishing Destinations
- Everglades National Park: An Eco-Travel Vacation in Florida