On your first visit to Key West, you will certainly want to see some main attractions: the continental U.S.’ “southernmost point;” President Truman’s “Little White House;” Ernest Hemmingway’s former Home; Mel Fisher’s gold or the Audubon House. You may want to fish, sail or dive. Or perhaps you want to dive into a bar like Smokey Joe’s or Margaritaville on Duval Street.Those are the virtual Key West “interstates.” This time we wanted to see Key West “back roads.” Strange as it may seem to those who have not retired, we were looking for a vacation, a trip with a much-slower pace than usual. We rented a house for twelve nights in the Truman Annex which we discovered on our last trip there (see When Joy and Duty Clash. April 2013). Here are some of the less well-known Key West attractions.
The US Coast Guard Cutter Ingham is now open to the public as a museum. Unlike most old naval craft that were taken out of “mothballs” and restored, the Ingham went directly from military use to public display with very few changes. There are still original posters on the walls and even an original cigarette pack on a table.
Rainy evenings did not cooperate with the Chalk Fest during which local artists, young and old draw on the concrete dock near the Ingham, but we still enjoyed what we saw, and one was particularly good.Just a little way further along was Fort Zachary Taylor, begun in 1845 to defend the Key West Harbor. Altered and used in four wars, it was decommissioned in 1947 and is now a state park with swimming and snorkeling close to downtown.
As Florida prepared to leave the Union in 1861, an army captain and his men marched into the fort, held it for the Union, and Federalist troops retained control throughout the Civil War. It became an important base for the Union blockade of the South. But because the old walls were not strong enough to hold subsequent armaments, the upper floors were removed and the interior casements were filled with rubble including Civil War era armaments.
Fort Jefferson in the Dry Torgugas National Park has been restored to much more resemble the condition of these Civil War forts. In 1968, however, a group of volunteers led by Howard England began to excavate that fill inside Zachary Taylor’s walls. They ultimately uncovered the country’s largest collection of Civil War cannons.
We did take a day trip to Fort Jefferson and enjoyed seeing it and snorkeling off its beach. But it is seventy miles away. Fort Zachary Taylor was within walking distance.
Alie wanted to see the Butterfly Conservancy, another not quite back-roads place. Ray went along and found himself really enjoyed the multitude of colorful butterflies, some interesting little birds and even a couple flamingos.
But one of our “slower-paced” pleasures was just walking along looking at the streets and architecture and having an occasional snack in a little off-beat place.
One evening, we went to a roof-top pool bar and had Indian “tapas” while drinking a Bahamian beer served by a recent Ukrainian immigrant. And the samosas were good — God bless America!
We visited the East Martello tower, another 1845-era fort now almost completely in ruins, just to see what it was. To our surprise, we found the local gardening club was having a combination yard sale, garden sale and local artists sale.The only day we left Key West was to drive to Bahia Honda to snorkel a reef just off the beach. Unfortunately, high winds had stirred up the bottom and visibility was zero, so we just turned around without going in. Passing a road to No Name Key, we had to turn and visit it. No Name Key was not much different from the other Keys, but we stopped for an early lunch at the No Name Pub, hoping it was open and we could get a passable hamburger. As a newspaper review on the wall said, you think you have made a great discovery only to discover a million others have already been there before. We sat down at the nearly empty bar for an excellent lunch and a chat with the waitress. It was lucky we were early. By noon on a weekday, the place was packed. A pub was added to the 1931 store and bait shop in 1936. For a while in the 1940s there was a brothel upstairs but it was not a success because it was said “fishermen looked better than the ladies.” The store and brothel were both abandoned, and the pub evolved becoming the most famous “nice place if you can find it” in the Keys. Even with our preference for out of the way places, we did visit one traditional spot almost every evening: sunset along the docks. The street entertainers on Mallory Square are fun, the sunset is nice (sometimes unbelievably beautiful), but the real pleasure is just seeing so many people enjoying themselves. And then we would walk up Duval Street, not for one of its famous bars, but to get Alie her favorite, a chocolate soft serve ice cream cone.