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Key West Celebrates Its Visionary Visitors

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By Steve Bergsman

The most popular things to do in Key West are water activities, fishing and partying. I think I did them all the first time I visited Key West, but now I'm older and my horizons are broader. So when my wife and I visited the most Southern city in the continental United States we decided to opt for a more cultured excursion. It's easy to do that because this beautiful little burg boasts many small museums, exhibitions and capricious oddities.

We arrived late in the afternoon after a drive from Key Largo. We showered, changed and then made a beeline straight for the bar-restaurant called Sloppy Joe's. Some maintain the original sloppy Joe sandwich was created here, but it is most famous for being a favorite hangout of writer Ernest Hemingway.

They still serve a good sloppy Joe, although its pedigree is debated as the sandwich might have been invented at the Sloppy Joe's Saloon in Havana. As for being the Hemingway habitat, that's questionable, as well, because the original Sloppy Joe's where the writer sat for drinks was sited at nearby 428 Greene St. and is now called Captain Tony's Saloon.

Supposedly the Key lime pie was created in Key West, and there are numerous Key lime eateries in the town. But a cafe called the Key Lime Republic has the plaque that says it was the place that developed the tastily refreshing pie.

The one thing we do know is original to Key West is singer Jimmy Buffet's first Margaritaville bar. It's on Duvall Street and can't be missed as the crowd there rivals the one at Sloppy Joe's.

We also visited some memorable museums. The Audubon House was originally built in the 1840s, about a decade after John James Audubon, the famed naturalist and painter, first came to Key West to document the birds of the Keys. This lovely small museum and gardens were created to honor the naturalist and his visit. A number of his original lithographs are on exhibit in the house, including the 22 birds of the Keys he painted for his masterpiece folio, "The Birds of America."

Across the street from the Audubon House is the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which was surprisingly interesting. When I walked in the door of the museum and saw the bronze bust of Mel, with his gold chains and comb-over, I thought twice about continuing. Once I got past the promotional aspect, however, this was a good museum dedicated to the treasure-trove from the Spanish galleons he salvaged. Also, a couple of rooms are dedicated to a slave ship that was also discovered at the bottom of the sea.

We also visited what are probably the two most deservedly popular museums in Key West. Nine presidents have visited Key West, but the one most associated with the island is Harry S.

Truman, who over the course of his presidency spent 175 days here on 11 different visits. The former naval residency where he stayed is now known as the Harry S. Truman Little White House. Our tour was led by a fine storyteller named Jimmy, who was a boy of 12 selling newspapers on the street when he met the president. This is an extremely interesting tour as Truman signed key legislation here.

Our next stop was the Ernest Hemingway House, where the famed author lived with his wife and two children from 1931 to1940. This is a small estate with gardens, pool and a second building that Hemingway used as his writing studio. He wrote some of his best works while in the Keys, including "Death in the Afternoon," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "To Have and Have Not" and "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

Coming from the Little White House, where everything was orderly and one could only go through the building on a regimented group tour, hitting the Hemingway House was like diving into chaos. To add to the confusion, passengers from a cruise ship also arrived to go through the house and gardens. There was a tremendous amount of Hemingway memorabilia to see when we were able to bump and jostle ahead of the phalanx of sightseers. The only creatures at rest were the tribe of six-toed cats that are always in residence on the property.

For a quieter literary experience we stopped at the Gay Key West Visitor Center, where there is an exhibit of the American playwright Tennessee Williams' life in the Keys. Williams, the author of "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," wrote "Summer and Smoke" and "The Night of the Iguana" in Key West, and the movie version of his play "The Rose Tattoo" was filmed on the island. Sadly, his home at 1431 Duncan St. is now in private hands.

As Blanche Dubois says in "A Streetcar Named Desire," says, ""What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it's curved like a road through mountains" — a good motto for the visitor center and its splendid exhibit.

WHEN YOU GO

Most people drive to Key West from Miami. The drive takes between three and four hours, depending on the route to the Keys and traffic along Route 1 from Key Largo to Key West.

There are a number of historic inns and bed-and-breakfasts in Old Town Key West. Many are located in century-old residential structures and all are nicely refurbished. We had a handsomely appointed room at the Chelsea House Pool and Gardens on Truman Avenue, which offered continental breakfast and a heated pool and was pet-friendly. Phone 305-296-2211.

For general Information: Florida Keys Tourism Council, www.fla-keys.com.

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2014 CREATORS.COM




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