Five “Off-Key” Aspects of Key West, Florida

Key West has come a long way from its days in the earlier 20th century when novelist Thelma Strabel wrote in 1940, “There is nothing for restless people to do.  It is quiet and careless and charming.”  I found the Spring Break hotspot to be one of the country’s most touristy places on the surface. But amidst all the sailboats, warm and breezy tropical conditions, outdoor cafes lining the city’s main drag called Duvall Street, where the words “I’ll have Key Lime Pie” is uttered over and over, I found a place where its quirky aspects make Key West memorable.  For those things that reflect its culture, traditions, and unique flavors resonate more with me than the typical tourist quest to find “Margaritaville.”

Why did the Key West chickens cross the road?

I soon found out while walking in Old Town that one doesn’t just share sidewalks with droves of locals and tourists wearing shorts (whether they look good in them or not), but many other two-footed creatures who have ditched their short shorts altogether: chickens.   While these fowl have been around for almost two centuries, their numbers especially grew in the 1950s after Cubans brought them over for use in cock fighting, food, and eggs.  Chicken numbers multiplied over time after cock fighting was outlawed and grocery stores provided easier access to eggs and poultry.  The roosters don’t just crow with the sunrise either as I found out at 230 am in my hotel room.   Nonetheless, there’s what seems to be an uneasy tolerance for the chickens’ presence because they do feast on pesky insects, even though they have irritated many locals because of where they choose to poop, trespass, etc.  This has resulted in various plans and schemes to deal with them over the years in what’s been called the “Great Key West Chicken Controversy” or “Key West Chicken Wars.”

I noticed that chickens will often scamper at the sight of a camera, but if you really want a good picture of them, they are more apt to stay put as you focus your camera at the post office on 400 Whitehead Street, which is just a couple of blocks west of Duvall Street.

Those sunsets!

A setting sun has this ability to captivate the eyes of its admirers.  I’ve seen beautiful sunsets in Wyoming, but I must say that the two I saw in Key West really gripped me so unexpectedly, for I never imagined sunsets being that impacting.  I first watched one from the brick walkway of Mallory Square, which overlooks the Gulf of Mexico, and the other while on a sunset cruise.

As I got closer to Mallory Square to view my first Key West Sunset, the sounds of blues music and the humming of sunset watchers dominated as I arrived at an adjacent outdoor restaurant.  Many folks were snapping pictures as the setting sun tried to make it to the horizon before being overtaken by massive clouds, even while sailboats continuously darted across the gulf.  At the square were other sights and scents I took note of, including the heavenly odor of buttered popcorn mixed with the saltiness of the sea, various musical and theatrical acts (which one performer employed his dog to take tips from the onlookers’ hands and deposit it in a bucket).   One outspoken guy was selling Jesus to the onlookers as if Mallory Square were the tropical version of London’s Speakers’ Corner.

The next night’s sunset was even more impressive for me, as the Sebago catamaran set sail around the shores of the island city.  The sun was still in full glory, but gusty winds helped to keep me and the other passengers cooler.   I observed the other cruisers.  They all seemed to be from another planet, given that their faces had this “never been stressed out look” on them.  Jimmy Buffet music blared from the loudspeakers as the champagne and other liquid inducements flowed.   This place does seem to be the “land of the eternal summer,” for others who live in the Northern Hemisphere were retreating to the warmth of their domiciles while I was alone with my thoughts in the open waters.   Once the sun set (again it was surrounded by clouds before disappearing), the skies entertained my eyes with a violet-orange haze before total darkness came except for the lights of distant ships, lighted like faraway Christmas trees.

“Conch Architecture”

I strongly advise travelers in Key West to get off the beaten path from the touristy Duvall Street, and walk through the surrounding residential neighborhoods of Old Town.  It’s here where I found a respite from the hustle and bustle of traffic while getting a glimpse into a unique kind of architecture called Conch Architecture.  This style compliments the various plantlife in the area like hibiscus, fiscus, gumbo limbo, and frangipani.

Earlier settlers of Key West used lime made from burned Conch shells to help build their homes, which became known as “Conch Houses”, a name which would stick even as wood became the prime building material.

These homes implement different styles, mixing New England, Gulf Coast, Bahamian, and African influences.  To my eyes, they greatly reminded me of the old plantation homes still found in the “Deep South” such as seen in such movies like Gone with the Wind.  I especially noticed the sloping roofs, which help reflect the sun better and send water down to the gutters more efficiently.

One of the best-preserved neighborhoods I found is just a few blocks from Duvall Street.  From the intersection of Duvall Street and Truman Ave. (US 1), walk east a few blocks until you get to Windsor Ave., then turn left and begin walking north (you’ll come to a fork which gives you the option of continuing on either Elizabeth, William, or Margaret Streets) until you get to the Key West Seaport.  This walk alone will give you a good idea of what a residential tropical neighborhood is like.  Many of these homes sell for a pretty penny, but admiring from the sidewalk is still free.

As for Duvall Street itself, I noticed that even popular chains like Walgreen’s and Wendy’s had their structures conforming to the “Conch” aesthetics.  My eyes captured the sight of two-story buildings with cheerful exteriors of yellow, white, orange, etc.

See a “Little White House” without all the fuss

As a presidential history buff, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could easily visit a place where numerous Presidents of the United States stayed and performed their duties, most notably Harry S. Truman.  He lived and worked at “The Little White House” for 175 days via 11 working vacations from 1946-1952.  Even on “vacation” here, he still had to sign his name 200-600 times a day to help keep the country running in a place originally built for the US Navy’s base commander and paymaster in 1890.   Unlike the “other” White House farther north, I didn’t have to make any special arrangements or go through any other fuss to walk around a property containing the 8,700 square foot home with its nicely-manicured lawn and gardens.  It’s in the midst of a quiet neighborhood, a short walk away from Duvall Street.  I can see why our past leaders must’ve found the property to be a respite just as I did from the sometimes boisterous tourist crowds.

Besides Truman, other presidents have stayed here, so visiting means you’ve set foot on grounds that America’s most famous people have, like Dwight D. Eisenhower, who recovered from a from a heart attack here in late 1955 to early 1956.  John F. Kennedy met with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1961 a few weeks before the Bay of Pigs.   Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have also stayed here.  Other people of note who’ve used this place include former Secretary of State Colin Powell to hold peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2001 while Thomas Edison stayed here half a year in 1918 to conjure up some new weapons during World War I.   The Defense Department was created here by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

One can see two of the rooms by the entrance/gift shop for free, but admission is charged for a grand tour of the home.

Fido gets tired after shopping for hats

Key West dances to its own beat, even when it comes to dogs, who are as welcome in places of businesses as their owners.  When you live in a city where dogs, unless they are guide dogs, generally don’t go shopping or coffee drinking with their owners, it’s quite a culture shock to see such frequent occurrences of dogs acting like regular customers at local businesses.  You can see dogs sitting around store counters or lounging by hat racks while their owners shop and complete their transactions.

A perfect example played out in my presence.  I sipped a cup of green tea in a local coffee house.  One transplanted English lady came in with her cute chihuahua and asked if she could share the table with us as she enjoyed her refreshment.  Soon, another man walked in with his larger dog, who spotted the chihuahua and tried to make a “social call,” alarming the woman and the chihuahua.  A policeman taking a coffee break across from our table was able to keep the larger dog at bay until the owner decided to take better charge of his pooch, claiming that his dog wouldn’t hurt anybody.   But recently passed city laws are making it more restrictive about bringing fido into food and drink establishments.

Key West Recommendations

I stayed at the Key Lime Inn which, despite being on the heavily-traveled US 1 (and a few blocks from Duvall Street), offered me a peaceful sanctuary via one of its 1930s built cottages nestled in a garden-like enclosure.  I also had a built-in alarm clock via a crowing rooster.   The bed I slept in was comfortable, and there’s free high speed internet. A free breakfast full of breads and cereals is provided each morning   The hotel is also made up of rooms inside one of the city’s oldest buildings dating back to the mid-19th century, the Maloney House.

I enjoyed dining in the laid back atmosphere of the Hogfish Bar & Grill, which features fresh fish that’s 75 to 80 per cent speared, including the hogfish.  Hogfish are really tender and have a similar taste to grouper.  This fish goes good with one of the restaurant’s featured hot sauces like Hoboken Eddie’s, a hot pepper sauce that comes in a whiskey-like bottle.

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Disclosure:  Roy A. Barnes attended a press trip sponsored by Florida Keys Tourism, but what he wrote is his own observations, and not vetted by the sponsor.  The author writes from southeastern Wyoming.

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Older comments on Five “Off-Key” Aspects of Key West, Florida

Sarah Lorentz
08 February 2011

Sounds like a very relaxing and historical place to visit!