When Ponce de Leon and other explorers
arrived on the shores of the island, they found it
littered with bones -- from native Indians and others who
had visited (many tragically). Spaniards called the
island Caya Hueso (Island of Bones) and it is thought
that Key West is an English corruption of that early
name. You'll see mention of Caya Hueso, or "Bone Island"
around the town.
Embrace the Conch Republic
You'll also see a strange flag flying in some
quarters. In 1982, the US Border Patrol placed a road
block on US Highway 1 at Key Largo to restrain the flow
of drugs and illegal aliens. Traffic was often backed up
for miles, and tourism suffered. A few Keywesters got
together and formed the nation of "The Conch Republic",
and seceded from the Union. The new government
immediately surrendered to the United States and
requested $1 million in foreign aid. The stunt worked and
the roadblocks were removed. The flag still flies in Key
West, and you can obtain a Conch Republic passport at
Much of the joy of visiting this unique corner of the
United States is in its museums. There are museums
devoted to authors and naturalists, to military campaigns
and wrecking captains and other early residents, as well
as the area's sea life. The following suggestions are
only a few of the many museums, and historic buildings
that are open to the public.
Audubon House and Tropical Gardens (205
Whitehead St.) is the restored home of a Captain Geiger,
with whom famed naturalist John James Audubon stayed
while cataloguing the birds of Key West. An audio tour of
this 1840s home is available, and the one-acre garden has
a wonderful collection of tropical plants. You'll find a
gift shop with Audubon prints, (305) 294-2116.
The Curry Mansion Museum (511 Caroline) is a
huge, 25-room Victorian mansion, which is open daily from
10 a.m. to 5 p.m., (305) 294-5349.
The Earnest Hemingway Home and Museum (907
Whitehead St.) was the novelist's home, filled with cats
(and still is). Many of the cats have six front toes --
descendants of a six-toed cat given to the writer by a
sea captain. Visiting this house/museum is a wonderful
way to learn about Hemingway and his family while they
were living in the city. The future of the cats is now
threatened by the federal government, for reasons too
arcane to deal with here.
Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society (200 Green
St.) holds a collection of treasure and artifacts from
Caribbean shipwrecks. The exhibition changes twice each
East Martello Museum (3501 South Roosevelt
Blvd.) is at one of two remaining Martello towers that
guarded the island from potential enemies from the
Spanish days. This is a fine place to get caught up on
Key West history, and particularly the military
importance of the island in centuries past.
Little White House (111 Front St. (Truman
This was the "Winter White House" of President Harry S.
Truman, and he vacationed here frequently during his
presidency. Set in the military base, the president was
protected at all times. (305) 294-9911.
Pirate Soul ( 524 Front Street)
Opened in 2005, this $10 million museum is the result of
one man's obsession with things piratical. Pat Croce,
former president of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball
team, has long collected pirate memorabilia. It's all
here and it's quite a treasure trove of authentic pirate
stuff: one of two existing jolly roger flags, a journal
from Captain Kidd's last voyage, a treasure chest once
owned by Captain Thomas Tew, and much much more.
The pirate-themed restaurant, called Pat Croce's
Rum Barrel, is next to the museum. For information,
call (305) 292-1113. Pirate Soul is open daily from 9:00
a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Adults $13.95; children 3-10 $7.95
Two motorized tours take you around the island, with
narration, pointing out the major highlights. The
Conch Train is the longtime popular tour that
covers 60 unusual and historic sites. You can catch it at
Mallory Square. For information, call (305) 296-6688.
Old Town Trolley Tours does much the same,
taking you on all-weather trolleys to the historic sites,
Mosquito Coast Wildlife Tours offers guided
kayaking through the waters of the keys, to mangrove
islands and other biological highlights in sea kayaks.
For information, call (305) 294-7181.
Adventure Charters and Tours provides guided
kayak tours of the Great White Heron and Ker Deer
National Wildlife Refuges. Tours are half-day or
full-day. (305) 296-0362.
Many of the city's museums and historic homes offer
Things to Do
The sunny warm weather at Key West invited beach
activity. Families enjoy Higgs Beach, where the kids use
the children's playground. the beach has a pier, sailboat
rentals, and barbecue grills. Smathers Beach has picnic
tables, plus parasailing, and jet ski rentals.
Key West Golf Resort has an 18-hole
championship course, designed by Rees Jones.
You can't go to Key West without participating in the
nightly sunset hoopla at Mallory Square. Mimes and
jugglers entertain just before sunset. You can buy food
and drinks from vendors. Everyone gathers on the docks to
watch the sun go down over the Caribbean, and it's an
awesome sight, usually getting a standing ovation from
Held during the last week of October, Fantasy Fest is the
island's largest celebration -- a phantasmagoria of masks
and costumes, parties and parades (on foot and by boat),
attracting thousands of visitors to the island. Many of
the hotels hold their own celebratory events (special
dinners, dances, poolside bashes). The final parade, held
on Saturday night, has had more than 50,000 costumed
revelers, with many more looking on. For information,
call (305) 296-1817.
The Red Barn Theater In Old Town Key West (319 Duval
Street), offers year-round productions of musicals,
contemporary classics and modern classics. - 305-296-9911
The city's Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center
presents operatic performances, symphonic and chamber
music, and dance. This large hall attracts national
touring companies, presenting classical drama and
Waterfront Playhouse, at Mallory Square, stages
musicals and original dramas, year-round, plus an annual
songwriters festival. (305) 294-5015.