When I learned that our Caribbean cruise would include a day stop at Key West, Florida, I wasn’t really too excited about it. I just tried to focus on the fact that it’s something new for me, as I’ve never been to that city before, and that new discoveries always fascinate me. Little did I know that such a visit would spring a lot of beautiful surprises for me.
Being first-timers in the island-city, my family and I decided to take a Coach Tour which took us to all the important tourist attractions the place offers. As we got on the vehicle that looked like a trolley car, a feeling of childish excitement immediately crept over me because it resembled those of the Christmas carnivals in Cebu, during my childhood years, where my parents would take me and my siblings to. As it was the least dangerous among the rides in the carnival, they would easily permit us to go on the trolley train that would “choo-choo” its way throughout the length and breadth of the fun place.
Back to the present, when our very knowledgeable driver-cum-tour-guide started his spiel, it immediately changed my perception of the city, as its tourism “jewels” unravelled before me. The first thing I was curious about was its name. Why “Key West,” when the island-city is actually in the eastern part of the US?
The early Spanish settlers discovered this island and saw a lot of bones of the dead Indians who inhabited the place, so they called it Cayo Hueso, in English, Cay (pronounced “key”) of Bones. Through the centuries, the Spanish name stuck, but knowing how Spaniards speak so fast, the “Hueso” must have been heard by the early Americans as “Wes,” thus the name Key West was born.
The next important discovery I made was that the island is the southernmost point of the United States. In the map, there is nothing else American below it. It is so far down south of the US mainland that the city is only 90 miles north of Cuba, which made it the nearest entry point for a lot of Cuban refugees who have fled from their country during the past decades.
Further harnessing this geographical importance as a tourist draw, the city put up a very colorful 12-foot concrete buoy at its southern edge, right by the bay, to attract hordes of tourists. In fact, all throughout the day, they queue up, just to have their photos taken beside this landmark.
As we drove through the streets, our driver pointed out a unique feature of the houses in the city. Each has a metal roof, to make it easy to collect rainwater into a cistern which its residents can use daily. It also prevents the fire from spreading, a painful lesson they learned from the devastating fire in 1886 which practically wiped out the whole city.
For a seven-square-mile island of a little over 26,000 residents, the driver mentioned quite a number of rich families so I asked him the source of those families’ wealth.
The nearby coral barrier reef has resulted to a lot of shipwrecks, and many enterprising families made a lucrative industry out of salvaging these shipwrecks. In fact, there was a time when Key West was the richest city in the US.
What else makes Key West famous? American novelist, short story writer, and journalist Ernest Hemingway put up a beautiful house, nestled in the old part of town, where he lived for more than 10 years and wrote part of his novel, For Whom The Bell Tolls. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his seven novels, six short stories, and two non-fiction works.
The house has a beautifully landscaped garden and is now a museum where visitors can get a closer look of all the rooms, and more details on his books that were made into movies. While living in this house, Hemingway was given a six-toed cat, named Snow White, by a ship captain. Now, 40 descendants of that pet reside in the museum.
A few blocks away is the original Sloppy Joe’s Bar, another favorite of the famous writer. It was originally in a run-down building and was called Blind Pig, selling whiskey for 15 cents, gin for 10 cents, and had gambling. When the owner added a dance floor, he called it Silver Slipper but the place was still shabby.
Being a regular patron of the bar, Hemingway suggested that it be named Sloppy Joe’s, which he adopted from Jose Garcia’s Rio Havana, another run-down bar selling liquor and iced seafood. Since there was always melted ice on the floor of this bar, patrons referred to the owner as Sloppy Joe, the name borrowed by Hemingway. Among the items on the present-day Sloppy Joe’s menu were Ernie’s Grilled Burger and Ernie’s Mojito. Of course, I enjoyed them for lunch.
Our tour also took us to La Concha Hotel, a seven-story building, making it the tallest structure in the city. It is where, in one of its guest rooms, famous American playwright Tennessee Williams wrote the final draft of A Streetcar Named Desire, even if he had his own house in Key West where he lived for 42 years. Williams won, among other accolades, two Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I asked our tour guide why Key West provided the perfect environs for these luminaries in literature and the arts to produce their respective masterpieces. His cryptic reply was: “There are dozens of bars in the city.” Go, figure!
But the favorite discovery I had during our tour was the city being the birthplace of one of my best-loved desserts ever—Key Lime Pie. Made of Key lime juice, egg yolk, and sweetened condensed milk in a pie crust, usually made of Graham crackers, this patisserie staple is sold everywhere on the island. Of course, I made it a point to go to the original bakery that first produced it commercially, had two slices of the pie, and paired it with ice cream of the same flavor.
It certainly was a day of discoveries and I’m glad a visit to Key West was part of our cruise itinerary. It whetted our appetite for bigger, even better discoveries at our next stop.
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