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Key West Guide - The City

Key West - Island City

Key West Life

Visitors come to Key West for many reasons. Some spend relaxing vacations in the many resorts, hotels, and quaint inns with Bahamian architecture. Families stay in camping and RV parks. Others come to escape northern climates - even in the summer -- and especially to fish. Others come for a day or two to feel how it is in the southernmost community in the United States - less than 100 miles from the island of Cuba, the American heart of the Caribbean.

When Ernest Hemingway arrived here in the 1930s, Sloppy Joe's Bar was the in place to be. It still is! This landmark pub helped set the tone for today's informal social life in Key West, where no one cares about how you're dressed for dinner, or about anything else!

The visitors who come to Key West are from all walks of life -- from millionaires to ordinary folks, and families wanting a relaxing beach vacation. In recent years, the town has welcomed a large number of gay visitors, and there are hotels and inns devoted to serving the gay clientele (see Hotel Guide).

Even though the population and visitor numbers have grown, Key West retains the unique features which made it an adventurous place to vacation in earlier decades. The historic architecture is a blend of Bahamian and New England seaside construction. Houses have porches on multiple storys. Landscaping is lush, and older buildings blend with more modern structures design to retain the unique ambiance. The island's population is culturally diverse, mirroring the groups that settled the island over the past two centuries.

Key West Celebrations

This is a city that celebrates -- for any reason. Art and music festivals are held year-round. Parties abound. Plays are premiered here. You'll see evening boat parades passing by virtually every night throughout the year. Almost every evening, sunset is celebrated at Mallory Square. September brings Womenfest., and for ten days in October, Fantasy Fest offers ten days of mardi gras activity, attracting more than 30,000 visitors. Many fishing tournaments are held., challenging deep sea anglers. In July, Hemingway Days and the Ernest Hemingway Lookalike Competition bring out the literary and more bizarre sides of the city's most famous former resident.

The Early Days

The long history of this unique island town includes settlement by South Florida natives, occupation by Spanish explorers and Bahamian "conchs," and the American military. Long a haven for "wreckers," looking for bounty from wrecked ships that foundered in the unpredictable Gulf Stream, the island became a trading center and tourist destination with the completion of Henry Flagler's stupendous railway project in January, 1912.

This was not the first settlement on the Florida Keys. That distinction goes to Indian Key. And within a few years, people came to live and work on Upper Matecumbe, Vaca, and Newport (Key Largo). But with its position, close to Cuba, and growing trade with Cuba, Key West became the largest city in South Florida by the 1820s, with shipping and fishing attracting residents who enjoyed the warm weather -- annual average temperature of 77 degrees, and it never freezes. Even in the summer Key West is comfortable with sea breezes tempering the climate. The record high is 98 degrees.

The Coming of the Highway

Key West remained a small, offbeat community until long after 1938, when the two-lane highway between Homestead and Key West was completed, long after hurricanes had removed the railway tracks and bridges.

The town has had its ups, and a lot of downs. The population sagged after the loss of the railroad, and the Great depression decimated the population further. It wasn't until tourists found Key West in the 1960s, that the island graduated into a popular destination. Now, some 20,000 people service the visitors who come here for balmy winter vacations, its friendly, tolerant atmosphere, and for year-round fishing adventure.

From the 1970s, the town has prospered as a popular tourist attraction, attracting a wide range of visitors who come to Key West to view the unique Caribbean architecture, visit the history museums, and to sample food and drink, including the ubiquitous margarita -- made infamous by Jimmy Buffet's landmark song "Margaritaville."

How to Get There

The town is 159 miles southwest of Miami and 90 miles north of Havana. From Miami, take US Highway 1 south. You'll be thrilled with the spectacular views from the highway, while traveling on many bridges, including a seven-mile stretch.

You'll find many places to eat and sight see on the lower and middle keys, including Key Largo, Plantation Key, Islamorada, Duck Key, Marathon Key, Big Pine Key, Little Torch Key, Ramrod Key, and Sugarloaf Key.

Key West International Airport (EYW) is serviced by Comair, The Delta Connection, USAir Express, and American Eagle, with only a short flight from Miami.

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