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SUNDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2006
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Barnacle Beau is one of many street performers who entertain crowds that gather to watch the sun set at Mallory Square.
Scripps Howard News Service photos by Cassandra Sherrill
Barnacle Beau is one of many street performers who entertain crowds that gather to watch the sun set at Mallory Square.

Key West
The laid-back isle of Buffet and Hemingway

By Cassandra Sherrill
Winston-Salem Journal

KEY WEST, Fla. — When you arrive at Key West’s airport, you’re greeted by large letters welcoming you to the Conch Republic. Political boundaries aside, in many ways this isn’t the United States or even Florida. Closer to Cuba — 90 miles away — than Miami, this is a place unto itself, a tropical-feeling island that prides itself on its laid-back, “anything goes” attitude.

Islanders call themselves “conchs” after the large shells that were a favorite of the English Bahamian settlers. Many of them were wreckers, salvaging valuable cargo — and theoretically saving the passengers — from ships that ran afoul of the nearby reefs. Then came the spongers and Cuban cigar-makers, contributing to a booming local economy in the second half of the 19th century. In its history, Key West has been the country’s richest and poorest city per capita.

One story sums up the island’s independent spirit.

In 1982, the U.S. Border Patrol — looking for drugs and illegal aliens — blockaded U.S. 1, the only road connecting the Florida Keys to the mainland. Protests didn’t end the blockade, so on April 23 the Keys “seceded” from the United States and declared themselves the Conch Republic.

After one minute of rebellion, Key West’s mayor surrendered to the admiral in charge of Key West’s naval base and requested $1 billion in foreign aid and war relief. (This money has not arrived.)

Sunset in Key West, America’s southernmost city. It’s home to free-roaming chickens and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.
Sunset in Key West, America’s southernmost city. It’s home to free-roaming chickens and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville.
The heart of Key West is mile-long Duval Street. Tourists, many of them carrying fruity alcoholic beverages, saunter past an array of head shops; souvenir stores selling T-shirts with slogans unprintable in most publications; restaurant hawkers touting 2-for-1 margaritas; and the occasional clothing-optional bar. Loud rock or calypso music pours from the open doorways and hangs heavily in the humid air. It’s a sometimes-overwhelming cacophony for the senses.

Yet walk a block or two away, and you’re in the middle of quiet residential streets with columned classical revival, Queen Anne or Bahama-influenced homes and bed-and-breakfasts, many of them flying royal-blue Conch Republic flags. Palm and papaya trees line the streets. Hibiscus and bougainvillea extend over whitewashed fences. Tiny lizards scurry along the sidewalks, and sleepy cats lounge on porches. Residents walk their dogs, sometimes with a parrot perched on their shoulder.

And then there are the free-roaming chickens, skinny creatures darting across streets and under bushes. Roosters ignore the unwritten sunrise rule and crow whenever they feel like it — leading one resident to post a hand-painted, wooden sign: “Help a local sleep!!! Take a chicken or two on your way out of town.”

Not everyone is annoyed by the chickens, however. Wander into The Chicken Store on Duval Street, and you’ll browse beside chickens pecking at the sawdust on the floor next to your feet. Want to sit down? You may have to move a roosting hen from the chair. It’s a must to join the throngs at Mallory Square — right by the massive cruise ship docked for the day — for the nightly sunset-celebration ritual at least once. There are street performers — including Barnacle Beau, a singing pirate with an arsenal of amusingly bad puns — and artists selling creations from small booths, a conch-fritter stand and lots of tropical drinks in plastic cups. It’s a big, raucous party.

For fewer people and a bird’s-eye view of the sunset, we head to the bar at the top of the La Concha hotel. At seven stories, it’s the tallest building on the island. We snag front-row seats and mango daiquiris and watch the sun gradually sink into the horizon as yellows, pinks and purples overtake the bright blue sky.

Ghost tours

A city with as quirky and colorful a past as Key West has to have its share of spooky stories, so we sign up for one of the nightly Original Ghost Tours. Our guide is “Cowboy,” a self-professed medium with a top hat, a billowing black cape and a raspy, cigarette-scraped voice that could etch grooves into a diamond. We walk down darkened side streets, stopping at various “haunted” locations, including the cemetery at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Despite the evocative atmosphere and plenty of opportunities for calling forth spirits, no ghosts are sighted, just a friendly gray-and-tan cat that Cowboy calls “Ghost Kitty.”

Key West isn’t known as a bastion of calm, but there is a heavenly oasis or two of tranquility to be found. After we’ve had enough of the 27-ring circus that is Duval Street, we head to Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden, a one-acre botanical treasure off a small lane that looks like someone’s driveway. Dainty orchids grow amid ferns, gigantic elephant ears, bromeliads and more than 150 species of palm trees. The dense foliage insulates the garden from outside sounds, and the air is hot and moist, giving the impression of being deep in a rain forest instead of within spitting distance of a Hard Rock Cafe. A caged cockatoo greets us (over and over) with “Hello!” and, loath to let us leave, swings upside down from his perch to keep our attention.

Even more relaxing is the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. The solarium is home to up to 75 varieties of butterflies, plus colorful birds, turtles and goldfish. Soothing music plays as we wander along the curving path among the tropical plants. Butterflies — bright blue or orange, zebra-striped, brown-spotted and countless others — constantly flit around us, occasionally even coming to rest on our heads, knees or backs. We sit for a while to soak up the serenity, then are startled to discover a large and stunningly marked atlas moth perched on a leaf just beside the bench. We watch a turtle struggle up a slippery outcropping of rock and slide back down into the pond and start all over again. It seems miles away from the craziness of Duval Street instead of just a few blocks.

Nearby is the Southernmost Point, a must-stop photo op. We wait our turn behind a large group of bikers for our chance to stand obligingly in front of the large, striped, buoy-shaped monument commemorating the southernmost point of the continental United States.

Hemingway lived here

Before Jimmy Buffett became the Margaritaville mascot of Key West, there was Ernest Hemingway. He lived in Key West with his second wife, Pauline, in the 1930s, and their yellow-shuttered house in the shadow of the Key West lighthouse is one of the city’s most visited spots. When they moved in, Pauline, clearly not understanding the local weather, removed all the ceiling fans from the house because she considered them old-fashioned. The house still contains the furniture used by the family, and pictures on the walls show Hemingway throughout his life.

The old U.S. Custom House and Post Office in Key West, Fla., today houses Key West Museum of Art &History.
The old U.S. Custom House and Post Office in Key West, Fla., today houses Key West Museum of Art & History.
In his studio behind the house, Hemingway wrote “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” short stories including “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and “To Have and Have Not,” which contains characters based on Key West acquaintances. His Royal typewriter still sits on a table.

When Hemingway returned from his job as a war correspondent in the Spanish Civil War, he found that Pauline had had a swimming pool built at the then-astronomical cost of $20,000. He handed her a penny from his pocket and told her, “Well, you might as well take my last cent.” Pauline had the penny set into the patio under glass.

But the biggest draw for us at the Hemingway House? The many six-toed cats that roam the grounds, descendants of Hemingway’s own polydactyl Snowball. Today there are about 50 cats in residence; about half of them have extra toes. They are oblivious to the attentions of the visitors, going about their cat business. Most are named after famous people, and black-and-white Charlie Chaplin shows he was well-named by performing for our tour group, then insistently pawing at the tour guide’s leg asking for more treats.

The cats have a unique water fountain, the basin of which is a urinal that Hemingway brought from his favorite watering hole, Sloppy Joe’s Bar. He told owner Joe Russell that he had put so much money down it that it might as well be his. Pauline, displeased with a urinal in the garden, had it covered with colorful tiles in an attempt to disguise it.

Most of the cats are spayed or neutered, but a few aren’t in order to keep the feline line going. A litter or two is born every year, and the kittens have their own lodgings, a miniature version of Hemingway’s house.

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