Fun Drives: Exploring Key West
OK, now that you have rented your convertible from Budget, National, or Thrifty, a great way to spend a day or three is to head south out of Miami along the coastline until you reach the Florida Keys. The name for this exquisite chain of islands comes from the Spanish word "coyas" which means "small islands." At the end of this chain of islands, you eventually come to famous Key West.
To reach Key West out of Miami, you head south on Highway 1. This highway will take you across a variety of islands, bridges, and the ever-present beautiful scenery but will eventually reach Key West after about 150 miles. Key West is just two miles by four miles in size but is still larger than life. This island attracts a variety of full time inhabitants from famous performers, singers, writers, free thinkers, and the well-to-do. Regardless of who lives here, Key West has an amazing variety of sites to see and things to do.
First stop: Key West by Sea (0 Duval Street, 305.296.6293)
One of the best ways to explore Key West and its surroundings is by sea. The catamaran The Pride of Key West and the glass-bottom boat Fireball go out daily to explore Key West and the coral reefs around it. These tours are not only a lot of fun but very affordable (reef trips are currently $35 per person, $37 for sunset cruises).
Second stop: Audubon House & Tropical Gardens (205 Whitehead Street, 305.294.2116)
This is a nice example of 19th-century Key West architecture. Named for renowned bird expert John James Audubon, this stop is a peaceful break from a busy day's site-seeing. There is a half-hour audio tour conducted by the "ghosts" of the family who lived here, which takes you through the house and grounds where you can see some of Audubon's well-known paintings, fabulous antiques, historical photos, and of course, the lush tropical gardens.
Third stop: Mel Fisher's Maritime Heritage Society Museum (200 Greene Street, 305.294.2633)
Travelers who like pirates, sunken treasure, and diving should check out this small museum. the Mel Fisher's Maritime Heritage Society Museum has an impressive display of gold artifacts like gold doubloons, pieces of eight, and solid gold bars. A 170th century English merchant slave ship is on view on the museum's second floor. There are also fascinating exhibits on the equipment used to retrieve these rate artifacts from the Atlantic Ocean.
Fourth stop: Hemingway House (Truman Ave and Olivia Street, 305.294.1136)
"Papa" Ernest Hemingway lived in this Spanish colonial-style house built in 1851 of coral rock from 1931-1940. This was one of the first homes on the island with indoor plumbing and the first with a swimming pool. Tourists are directed to look for the penny which Hemingway pressed into the cement by the pool. He wrote many of his most famous works while living here. Hemingway is said to have lived with up to 50 cats which were famous for having six toes. Some of these six-toed feline descendants can still be found on the grounds.
Fifth stop: Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center (35 E. Quay Road, 305.809.4750)
The center features interactive displays which depict Florida Keys underwater and upland natural habitats. The exhibits also feature the ecosystem of North America's only contiguous barrier coral reef.
Sixth stop: Key West Cemetery (Entrance at the corner of Margaret and Angela streets)
Built on hard, coral rock the tombs here are raised (some stacked on top of each other) to avoid flooding . Famously droll epitaphs include "I told you I was sick" on the tomb of a notorious hypochondriac and one widow's inscription "At least I know where he's sleeping tonight."
Seventh stop: Key West Shipwreck Historeum (1 Whitehead Street (by Mallory Square), 305.292.8990)
Really interesting place to learn everything you ever needed to know about shipwrecks along the Florida Keys and the treacherous reef system.
Eight stop: Lighthouse Museum (1316 Duval Street, 305.296.2988)
Built in 1848, Key West's lighthouse was capable of beaming light 25 miles out to sea. Climb the 88 steps to enjoy panoramic seascapes and views of the town.
Ninth stop: Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park (Call the park rangers at 305.292.6713)
The 1866 brick fort is now a military museum with a fine collection of Civil War artifacts. The island's best beach is also nearby.
Tenth Stop: Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square (On the docks at the westernmost end of Whitehead Street)
Every evening, the fun-loving citizens of the self-styled "Conch Republic" gather at the docks behind Mallory Square to celebrate the day that was. On a typical evening you will find acrobats, food vendors, portrait artists, animal acts, and a variety of other fun and engaging activities.