Key West a Year Apart – Part 2 – 2017

[Key West, FL, Dec 26, 2017]

If you read the previous blog post, you already know that this was our second attempt at getting to Dry Tortugas National Park, one of the most remote ones in the US. Unlike last year though, we headed straight for the keys. Without a detour to Miami and the lack traffic this early in the morning (we left Boynton at 5:30 am), we hit the upper keys as the sun was rising and made it to Key West before 10 am.

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Sunrise in Key Largo

Another difference between this year and last was the evidence of hurricane Irma, which made landfall in Cudjoe Key as a category 4 hurricane on Sept 8, 2017.

Evidence of the damage could be seen up and down keys in the form of piles of debris along the highway. Some of these piles must have been dumped illegally, because there were numerous signs along the way warning against dumping trash on the side of the road. It was sad to see the scale of destruction just driving by – I know some of the neighborhoods in Cudjoe and Big Pine Key are full of more debris. Some of these piles were clearly the contents of an entire home – there were couches, mattresses, furniture. It was obvious that many people had lost everything they had.

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The road itself seemed to be in good shape. The Overseas Highway, as this portion of US 1 is called, stretches for 113 miles from Miami to Key West. A century ago, the keys were connected by the Overseas Railroad, an extension of the Florida East Coast Railway. A hurricane damaged the railroad in September 1935. The Florida East Coast Railway was unable to pay for the needed repairs and it sold the roadbed and bridges to the state of Florida. The state had already been building a road connecting some of the keys, but this allowed them to finish the highway, which opened in March 1938. The most scenic parts of the route are the bridges connecting the different keys, the longest of which is 7 miles. It is aptly named the Seven Mile Bridge and it’s one of the most famous along this route.

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There are actually two bridges here. The bridge you see on the right was the old bridge, which was constructed in the early 20th century as part of the construction of the Overseas Railroad. Some of the sections are missing but the ones that remain are open to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. In the picture below, you see the old bridge going over Pigeon Key. The new bridge on the left opened in 1982 after 4 years of construction.


By Tinsley Advertising ( [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once in Key West, we headed to the Ernest Hemingway house again. This was B’s 5th or 6th visit to the Hemingway house  – he comes every time he comes to Key West, and is still not tired of it.

The house is now a museum. Guided tours depart every 15 minutes from the front porch, and are a good way to learn about the history of the house despite the troves of tourists you will be in the company of. Just make sure you’re close to the front of the group so you can hear and see well.

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On the tour

Hemingway lived here from 1931 till 1939 but retained the title of the house until he died in 1961. His second wife, Pauline, who lived here with him, built a pool costing $20,000 (close to $400,000 in today’s money) while he was away covering the Spanish civil war. It was the first in-ground pool in Key West and the only pool for more than 100 miles. When Hemingway returned and found out what she’d done, he threw a penny at her and said “Well, you may as well have my last cent.” That same cent is embedded in the concrete by the pool.

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What was once the carriage house of this 19th century home (built in 1852) had been converted into Hemingway’s writing studio. A catwalk connected it to the main house but it has since been removed. The studio is now accessible via stairs from the back yard.

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The inside of the studio is pretty much the way Hemingway left it, typing machine and all. He’d get up early and write for hours here.

The house remains in really good shape today despite all the hurricanes because it’s sitting on some of the highest ground in Key West – 16 ft (almost 5 m) above sea level. It’s also built from limestone, which was excavated on site – this allowed for a basement to be built under the house. One of my favorite things about the house is the wrap-around porch on both levels.

Cat lovers will be excited to find many felines lounging all over the place, oblivious of the sings warning against sitting on the furniture.

Many of these cats have six toes. Hemingway was given a six-toed cat by a ship’s captain and many of the cats at the house are descendants of that original cat. The feline residents are used to all the tourists and welcome petting. This sociable fellow came to hang out with us while we were taking a break and we got a good photo of his six toes!

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After Hemingway’s house, we searched for a good place to have breakfast. The first place we found was closed, and the second one was super busy; the loud music didn’t make for a good ambiance, either. Luckily, around the corner was a quaint little French place, La Creperie, with outdoor seating where we enjoyed both savory and sweet gluten free crepes and mimosas. It was nice to relax for a little while after driving for 4 hours and dealing with so many people at Hemingway’s house.

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We consulted my guidebook to try to decide what to do next but nothing stood out to us. Boris called a friend who recommended that we go to Truman’s Little White House.

We walked there from our lunch place. We didn’t know what to expect, so we were quite surprised when we reached a neighborhood closed to vehicular traffic – only residents’ cars were allowed through the gate. Suddenly, Key West’s hustle and bustle was gone and we were walking through the cute streets in peace and quiet. Even if you don’t go into the museum itself, I strongly recommend a walk through the neighborhood.

It turns out that what is now Truman’s Little White House and the buildings around it, many of them now private residences, were once part of a submarine base naval station. The Little White House itself used to be the residence of the base commandant.

Truman visited here for the first time in 1946, following doctor’s orders to get some rest. He loved it so much that he kept returning. Many of his vacations were working vacations, which meant that White House staff were there with him. Truman realized that the White House is wherever the president is, and so the name Truman’s Little White House was born.

Other presidents visited here too all the day until 1974 when the submarine base closed due to changing technologies. The property was added to the US National Register of Historic Places, but it remained closed until 1987 when the deed was transferred to the state of Florida. One million dollars were spent on restorations and the house opened as a museum in 1991. The only way to see the site is through regular guided tours, which last about 45 minutes and will set you back about $15. If you’re visiting this and the Hemingway House on the same day, get the combo ticket from either location to save a few bucks.

Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside, but I can tell you that the rooms are preserved pretty much the way they were when Truman came here. His briefcase, telephone and his famous “The Buck Stops Here” sign are still at his desk.

The only place we could take photos was a small exhibit room before you exit the house.

I learned a lot about Truman’s legacy from this tour. He desegregated the military in the 1940s, a good 20 years before the Civil Rights movement. He was the mastermind behind the Marshall Plan, which was instrumental in Europe’s recovery after WWII, and he helped the formation of the UN and NATO. Sadly, he was also the one who ordered the use of nuclear weapons against Japan in WWII – something that remains controversial until this day.

As we headed out of the Little White House, we headed towards Mallory square and Duvall Street to find something to eat and drink. On the way, we passed the Customs House – a historic 19th century building that has been turned into a museum. We did not go inside but I couldn’t help but take a picture of its gorgeous Richardsonian Romanesque facade, typical of federal buildings erected at the end of the 19th century.

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The rest of the day was spent enjoying the low-key side of Key West. We grabbed some mid-afternoon drinks at an awesome bar called Tequila 308. Even though it was on a main street close to Mallory Square and right across from a Conch train stop (a very popular sightseeing tour), it was empty this time of day, and the drinks were great!

We also had to make a stop at Sloppy Joe’s, which is a total tourist trap but a must. Hemingway came here frequently, although during his time the bar was located a few blocks down, at 428 Greene Street, where you will now find Captain Tony’s Saloon. If you want to avoid the crowds, come here in late afternoon. That’s when we got there and the place was just busy enough but most people were still out and about exploring or waiting for the sun to set. Last year we came here after sunset and it was way too busy and loud thanks to the live music band.

We spent the night just a couple of miles away. I will mention the name of the place only to caution you to stay there if you can’t find better accommodations. It’s called Banana Bay Resort and Marina in Key West (there is another one with the same name in Marathon, so make sure you have the right one). The room was clean but the place had not seen a renovation in decades. The picture below looks much better than in person. Note that only one bedside lamp is on – the other one did not work, and neither did the phone. There is no WiFi outside of the check-in desk. It’s expensive for what it is but by the time we looked for accommodations in late November, this was the most affordable choice. Read the reviews and decide for yourselves. We were just excited that we’d finally get to see the Dry Tortugas the next day! That post is coming soon – don’t miss it!

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