“… we’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow …” – The Beach Boys 🙂 This ‘most southerly point’ on the continental USA is (along with the other Keys en route) the only important Caribbean Island accessible by road.
Key West is four miles across and one mile wide – much of its developed space reclaimed from the sea. Its identity is counter-culture, tropical, relaxed and heavily touristed. With good road conditions, Florida’s other 20 million can drive to Mile 0 in about three hours. Other visitors arrive by air and thousands on cruise ships. The Keys define the limit between the Caribbean (Atlantic) and the Gulf of Mexico. Key West itself boasts a natural deep water port and can receive up to three cruise ships a day in high season. Originally home to the Calusa indigenous peoples, Key West or Cayo Hueso became one of the many pawn islands in the colonial Caribbean. It was traded between the Spanish (with deep and direct ties to Cuba), Britain and the United States. Due to so much piracy and so many shipwrecks, local jewellery is festooned with old Spanish coins. This is where they come from.
By 1889 little Key West was the largest city in Florida! This offers much to contemplate. Miami was but a dream and the former Southern Confederacy was finally emerging from its centuries of slavery. The 19th-century industrialist Henry Flagler – a principle in Standard Oil – connected the Keys to the mainland via train by 1912. This was an incredible accomplishment and offers testament to the magnitude of the industrial US economy. It should also raise all sorts of conversations about the power of oligarchs, workers rights and the environment. Are our great human monuments worth their cost? China’s Wall? Rome’s Colosseum? The Pyramids of Egypt and the Americas?
Thus noted, Key West’s accessibility – and famously ‘frost-free’ status -makes it an eternally desirable destination. Finding the local culture takes a little digging, but it is there.
Famously LBGTQ-friendly, Drag Shows are a popular evening activity along Duval Street. I have to think all that make-up and padding must be uncomfortable in the humid heat.
In the 1980’s when drug smuggling was particularly fierce in southern Florida, US Border Services implemented a comprehensive control on the one and only road in and out of the Islands. In response, locals declared the ‘Conch Republic’ thereby seceding from the Union. This was simply a protest but highlighted the Island’s identity and utter dependence upon tourism. Airlines swooped in to deliver more visitors.
Of all the Island traditions, kissing the sunset may be the most alluring. Mallory Square faces west and each night people gather to salute the sun, kiss and now take selfies. While small, Key West really does deserve a few days.
The Old Town has preserved attractive Carribean architecture. The one small beach on the south shore is nice and the water colours as beautiful as one could hope. The clear water throughout the Keys is ideal for fishing and marine life viewing. Duval’s Street’s party atmosphere is continuous, but there are several good museums – including Ernest Hemmingway’s home.
The cemetery is located on the Island’s highest point and is interesting. There is also the marker for the Southernmost point in the USA.
An evening sunset cruise is a must.
Key West is closer to Cuba than Miami and as relations thaw, this important Caribbean hub shall remain an important destination.