Our first day trip into Key West began with an obligatory visit to the Southernmost Point of the United States. The giant “buoy” is concrete and anchored into the ground at the corners of South and Whitehead Streets. In an often overlooked technicality, there are a couple geographical spots further south than the iconic buoy, but they are owned by private citizens or the U.S. Military and aren’t accessible to tourists. We parked a few blocks away and began walking towards the famed corner, catching sight of some great shopping deals along the way.
Due to the fact that the point is a tourist magnet, there is an unofficial, but surprisingly orderly line in which one must wait to take their photo with the buoy. The expanse of water behind the concrete is blue and appears endless. Between the view and eavesdropping on other conversations (there are a lot of drunk people in Key West), the wait felt very short. A few quick clicks later (with the wrong camera lens, providing an unfortunately close shot), and we were done!
Although somewhat anticlimactic, I enjoyed knowing I’ve been within throwing distance of the Southernmost points of both the East and West coasts of the United States. Directly following the photo op, I saw my first Key West rooster.
There are several theories as to how the roosters originally came to Key West, and multiple reasons that they went from private property to public citizens. For decades now, the roosters (and hens) have wandered through the streets of Key West freely. There was a brief attempt by the local government to reduce the chicken population in 2004, but due to heavy backlash the project was abandoned shortly after it had begun.
Second on my list of must-see spots in Key West was Ernest Hemingway’s home. Just a short walk down Whitehead Street and we’d arrived. Built in 1851 and designated as a historic landmark in 1968, Hemingway lived in the home from 1931 to 1939. A guided tour is included in the price of your (cash only) admission, but we opted to wander freely. The tour groups were exceptionally large, and the rooms simply aren’t. The home itself is beautiful.
I opted not to take any photos inside the home. There were a couple reasons for this. For one thing, the aforementioned tour groups made it nearly impossible to get a photo without at least three strange people looming in a corner looking sufficiently sweaty and sunburned. Additionally, something I overheard made me question the authenticity of the furniture and decorations within the home. As I passed one of the tour groups, a visitor asked whether all the items belonged to Hemingway. The guide responded that no, they did not. The home had, in fact, been rented out during either the 50s or 60s and many pieces were from that time. This stands in opposition to the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum website, which states that the house “still contains the furniture that he and his family used.”
The grounds are lush and tropical, and include several sets of benches upon which to sit and ponder the history of the home. There is also a large pool, surrounded by palms and greenery, that has quite a story, itself.
While Ernest Hemingway designed the pool himself, he left the construction oversight to his wife Pauline. As he worked overseas as a war correspondent, Pauline approved the removal of Hemingway’s famous boxing ring (it was moved to the site now occupied by Blue Heaven), in order to make room for the pool. Walking the grounds today, it seems as though this may have been Pauline’s preference rather than necessity. Much to Hemingway’s frustration, the costs of putting in the pool mounted. In 1930s Key West a pool was an unimaginable luxury. When this particular waterhole was installed, it was the only one within 100 miles. Taking inflation into account, the $20,000 cost of installing the pool in 1938 would be equivalent to $328,506 today. With no running fresh water in Key West at that time, the pool was filled with salt water via an underground pump drilled down to the water table. Poet Elizabeth Bishop, a friend of Pauline’s, wrote about the Hemingways’ pool,
The swimming pool is wonderful – it is very large and the water, from away under the reef, is fairly salt. Also it lights up at night – I find that each underwater bulb is five times the voltage of the one bulb in the light house across the street, so the pool must be visible to Mars – it is wonderful to swim around in a sort of green fire, one’s friends look like luminous frogs . . .
The other popular attraction at Hemingway’s home are the Hemingway cats.
At the turn of the century, many ship captains believed that six-toed (polydactyl) cats were good luck. As such, they often traveled with one on their ships. Captain Stanley Dexter, aware of Hemingways’ attraction to this lore, gifted Ernest with a six-toed cat named Snowball. The rest is history, as they say. At the time of my visit there were 54 polydactyl cats living on, and in, the Hemingway house. They are well cared for and quite at home on the property. Many of the cats there today are direct descendants from Snowball and other cats owned by the Hemingway family.
While entertaining and friendly, there is one small downside to the colony of cats which I feel is necessary to mention. The entire property smells like cat urine. Inside and out. It’s an unavoidable side effect of so many felines calling the place home, but it can be rather pungent at times.
With our fill of kittens, we said goodbye to the stately home and began to wander. Having accomplished the only two must-do items on my list for Key West, we decided to sit down for lunch and make a plan. Heading just one block north and then one block west, we ended up at Blue Heaven. Yes, the same place where Hemingway’s relocated boxing ring used to stand.
Owners Suanne (an artist) and Richard (a writer) began serving black beans, rice and fish in 1992. After time, Richard’s brother Dan (a formally educated chef) came down and took over the menu. Blue Heaven describes its specialties as “Caribbean cuisine, seafood and vegetarian dishes.” Not only is the location famous, but the food is, as well. And we were not disappointed. On recommendation from our lovely waitress, I chose the Loaded Black Bean Bowl (black beans, rice, romaine, coleslaw, salsa, sour Cream, cheddar Cheese, avocado and jalapenos, served with corn bread) with shrimp.
Tall Guy opted for the Blue Heaven “BLT” Benedict. The L stands not for lettuce, but lobster!
Sitting in the outdoor courtyard, under the shade of Spanish lime and palm trees, there is a cool breeze and an easy, joyful vibe. You might have to wait for a table but, I assure you, it’s worth the wait.
From Blue Heaven we traveled to Duval Street. We window-shopped and made notes of restaurants we’d like to patronize another day. Finally we moseyed along the boardwalk edging Key West Bight, where we took in the ocean and sky blues, the boats and the birds.