Saturday, September 19, 2009


It was Friday afternoon, on a clear and cold December 28, 2001, as Dianne and I rushed through our jobs so we could catch the 6:05 plane from Chicago's O'Hare Airport to Fort Lauderdale. We arrived at the airport around 4 o'clock and checked our bags and sailed through security in about a 10 minute span. We had lunch/dinner at Chili's at the airport because the airlines had discontinued dinner flights.

The flight to Fort Lauderdale was uneventful, and we quickly got our Avis mid size rental car and set off down U.S. 1 to our hotel, the Hampton Inn where we arrived at about 10 P.M. We like Hampton Inns because we can rack up Hilton Honors points to use for free rooms at really nice hotels at a later date. We awoke around 9 A.M. and got our free Continental breakfast at the hotel and went out into a beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the 70's.

We drove down the Florida Turnpike, bypassing Miami, and within an hour were on the famous Florida Overseas Highway, U.S. 1, leaving the Florida mainland. The road meanders for 20 miles or so through the swamps of the Everglades, with mangrove trees on both sides and water beyond that. From time to time, the azure waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico come into view through the dense foliage. The total distance from Fort Lauderdale to Key West is 185 miles.

We made it to Key Largo, about 55 miles South of Miami where we stopped at the Visitor's Center and picked up some maps and brochures. Key Largo is the longest key, about 10 miles long and less than a mile wide. The economy is geared to tourism, with numerous small restaurants, motels, boat launches and related businesses, like dive shops, sea related gift shops (think seashells), etc.

The road is measured by mile markers from Key West. The "0" mile marker is in Key West, and Key Largo is located between 90 and 105--the miles from Key West. Thus, one can find any specified location by knowing the mile marker where it is located.

We continued on through Tavernier and Islamorada and stopped for lunch. By and large, on each island you find the same types of tourist businesses as on Key Largo but there are bridges between the islands, some of them spanning several miles.
There are a total of 42 bridges on the trip from the mainland to Key West. These bridges are engineering marvels in that they were constructed across open water and required pouring hundreds of concrete caissons strong enough to withstand the hurricanes that plague the area.

The bridges were built between 1907 and 1912 by the Florida East Coast Railroad, owned by Henry Flagler who had been John D. Rockefeller's partner in the Standard Oil Company. Money was no object, and Flagler had previously built the railroad down the East coast of Florida and followed it up with luxury hotels in places like Palm Beach and Miami to get people to go there.

At that time, Key West, unbelievably, was the largest city in Florida, but was inaccessible by land. It was the cigar manufacturing capital, and was prosperous
because of extensive trade with Cuba. The U.S. Navy had a large base in Key West. Many of the locals made their livings salvaging shipwrecks. Even sponge diving was a major industry.

We passed through Marathon, crossed the mammoth 7 mile bridge and Big Pine Key, and eventually reached Key West in mid afternoon. Our hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott, was a little disappointing to us not only because of its location about 2 miles from the center of Key West, but also because it was not a resort type hotel like the Lincolnshire Marriott which we're familiar with. The room was comfortable, however, and the hotel had a nice pool and hot tub. Our room faced a bay, but not the open sea. There was a beach there, but it appeared to be a manufactured beach. We found that the beaches in the Keys in general are a letdown compared to, say, those in Fort Lauderdale, Daytona or Myrtle Beach. The beaches are coral and not normal sand.

Without unpacking, we drown down to Old Town Key West and negotiated the narrow streets full of tourists and small shops. Our first stop was the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum which is in the center of the action, one block from the famous Duval Street and Mallory Square, and across the street from the Audubon House and Gardens. Mel Fisher was a professional treasure hunter who scanned the ocean bottom for sunken Spanish treasure ships. He and his discoveries were featured on the Discovery Channel on many occasions. He located the Spanish ship Atocha, and recovered gold and silver worth hundreds of millions of dollars and had to fight off the U.S. Government in court to get the rights to it. The museum was very interesting, showing how Fisher's crew was able to bring all of this treasure to the surface. It also featured exhibits about shipping in the 1600's, detailing life aboard the ship for sailors, how many of each occupation (carpenters, blacksmiths, etc.)were on board, and displaying artifacts, etc.

After the museum, we walked over to the Hilton Marina. The Hilton has a hotel right on the shore, but it was booked solid for New Year's. On the shore is the famous sunset celebration done every sunny day. The marina area has several bars, booths selling gifts and t-shirts, and street entertainers--similar to Venice Beach in California which we've enjoyed in the past.

After sunset, we walked back through the Hogs Breath Saloon to Sloppy Joe's Bar. Both were favorites of author and adventurer Ernest Hemingway, who died in 1961 by his own hand. (He became distraught when the Castro regime in Cuba confiscated his considerable holdings there.) We had a drink at Sloppy Joe's and continued up Duval Street which is the main drag through the tourist area. The buildings dated from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and many have been rehabbed. The street has numerous gift shops, art galleries, restaurants, and t-shirt shops, as well as colorful people. We eventually arrived at Papa's Restaurant, in an old house, where we had dinner. We sat on the balcony. I ordered Hemingway's favorite, shrimps Cuban style which was in a curry sauce with bananas and papayas. It was somewhat sweet tasting, and I probably wouldn't order it again. For an appetizer, I had the local favorite, conch chowder which is similar to Manhattan clam chowder. For dessert was key lime pie, the signature dish in this town. We reserved tickets for a sunset cruise on a tall ship for the next day.

Before returning to our hotel, we drove to a public beach, Higgs Beach, that evening and walked on the pier which is popular with fishermen in the daytime. The beach had signs warning of contact with the Portuguese man-o-war jellyfish. You don't want to be stung by one--I was when I was a young boy, and I can still remember the extreme pain. There is much seaweed on the beach, so I don't know how you would see a jellyfish in time to avoid it. The beaches on the Atlantic coast on the mainland are much superior to this one. We went back to our hotel for the evening and took a swim and a dip in the hot tub.

The next day, Sunday, December 30th, was overcast but warm--mid 70's. We parked at a city garage at the Historic Seaport and left the car there all day for $12. We walked the block over to the Flagler railroad station which is now a gift shop. This is a stop for the conch train, a train driven on the streets through the old town area. We caught the conch train for a 90 minute tour to see all the high spots in Key West. The train went directly to its depot at Mallory Square where we stopped for a snack at the gift shop. I had a coconut milk shake at Baskin & Robbins which was the best I've ever tasted!

The conch train took us past the attractions we would visit later like the Truman Little White House and the Hemingway House. Eventually the trip was over and we had some time before our sunset cruise. We walked to the Curry Mansion which was owned at one time by William Curry, Florida's first millionaire (wreck salvaging and ship supplies). The house was built in the late 1800's and decorated with antiques and period furniture. We went up to the widow's walk, probably the highest point in town, and took several pictures. The house is now a bed and breakfast, but the rooms for rent are actually in a building across the street. We had lunch at an oyster bar by the Historic Seaport, across from the Turtle Museum which we did not visit.

We returned to the Historic Seaport for our cruise. The sky was clearing up, and we might actually see the sunset. The ship was the Western Union, a 130 foot schooner with 3 tall masts. There were about 50 people on the cruise with us. The high point of the cruise was the wedding we witnessed. A middle aged couple from Tennessee, the O'Neals, arranged to be married by the ship captain. The couple distributed disposable Kodak cameras to us and several others to record the wedding for posterity. Gregory O'Neal is an attorney in suburban Nashville, and we had a lot to talk about. The wedding was performed at sunset at sea and was very beautiful. We love weddings anyway. Drinks and champagne were included as well as a cup of conch chowder. That two hour cruise was our favorite part of the trip.

After the cruise, we walked back to town and found Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe on Duval Street. This restaurant was made famous by Jimmy Buffett, the well known singer and reputed cousin of financier Warren Buffett. The cafe is on two levels. It is very noisy and crowded. The loud speaker system plays all Jimmy Buffett, all the time. I had a cheeseburger, made famous by the J.B. song Cheeseburger in Paradise. The seafood bisque was very good also.

We finished dinner and found the Ripley's Believe It or Not museum further down Duval Street. We didn't have high expectations, but spent two hours there, amazed at the weird exhibits like two headed cats and stuff like that.

New Year's Eve day brought rain. We had planned to take a glass bottom boat tour, but it was cancelled because of the weather. We parked on the street and walked through the rain to the Hemingway House. On the way, we stopped at a small grocery store and bought plastic ponchos to keep the rain off. The Hemingway House was a very interesting guided tour. We learned the story of Hemingway's life--his four marriages, life in Europe after World War I, his fishing trips, safaris--the bases of his novels. The house has a swimming pool and extensive gardens. The pool was built by his first wife, Pauline, a gift to Ernest when he returned from Europe. It was the only swimming pool in Key West at the time. Ernie was upset because the pool cost so much money, and he threw his last penny at Pauline. Talk about the perils of Pauline! Well she had the penny embedded in concrete and it is still there. Actually Mrs. Hemingway was wealthy in her own right. Every room has a story and we heard most of them.

We then drove to the Hilton to sign up for the New Year's Eve party. It had been scheduled for the pier, but because of the rain, it had to be moved inside to the Truman Ballroom (there's a Dewey Ballroom also). We paid $190 for tickets to the party, left the car at the Hilton garage and walked uptown. Dianne wanted onion soup, and the concierge told us about a French cafe on the 800 block of Duval. The 800 block turned out to be 8 blocks away, but we sloshed over there anyway. We arrived, tired and soaked. I took off my sandals in the restaurant to dry off my feet. Fortunately, the food was very good. The soup and the crepe dishes were outstanding.

After lunch, we went to the Truman Little White House. I've always admired Harry Truman, a regular guy who became president, accepted the awesome responsibility, and by and large made the correct decisions concerning the major issues of Postwar America. The house was originally the officer's quarters at the Navy base. We saw many Truman artifacts and original furniture. For example, they had Truman's poker table. We learned that, although Truman loved the game, he was not a good poker player because he was too optimistic and would stay in the hand too long with bad cards. Often, the admirals and cabinet members would let him win, for job security. The museum showed films about the Truman years (Cold War, Marshall Plan, etc.).

We toured the Audubon House which actually was not the great naturalist's house. Instead it was the house of Capt. John Geiger, who made his fortune salvaging wrecked ships. At one time, the naturalist, John James Audubon visited there, and the Geigers had several original Audubon paintings hanging on the wall. The furniture is European and is mostly mahogany. Key West is an incongruous place for that type of furniture, but it was salvaged from ships bound for someplace else.

Rather than move the car and search for a scarce parking place later, we decided to taxi back to our hotel to change for the New Year's Party. We got back to the hotel and decided to sit in the hot tub for awhile. On a cold rainy day, this is a pleasure. The hot tub has a thatched roof over it for shelter.

We got back to the Hilton about 7 P.M. and waited for awhile in the lobby. We met some nice folks from Connecticut while waiting. The dinner was scheduled for 7:30 and at that time the tables were assigned and the bar opened. You could drink as much as you wanted, but we weren't interested in getting drunk. The waiters passed out hot hors d'oevres which were very tasty. We sat between a couple from upstate New York and a local couple. The man from Key West was a plumbing contractor. The people were very friendly and fun loving. The party had an 8 piece orchestra from Miami who played a wide assortment of music and we did a lot of dancing.

The dinner was filet mignon, stuffed with some type of boursin creme sauce which was excellent. Along with that was lobster tail medallions with butter sauce and roasted red pepper whipped potatoes. The appetizer was a shrimp and stone crab cocktail. The salad was watercress, poached pears, smoked prosciutto, gorgonzola cheese and sundried tomatoes. Had enough? Dessert was a sweet table with stuff like banana creme brulee, tiramisu, cakes, pastries, and, of course, key lime pie.

After the stroke of midnight, we went down the block to Duval Street and found thousands of people in the streets celebrating. They quickly dispersed after that and we went back to our hotel. Hopefully 2002 would prove to be a better year.



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