A Colorful and Historic Community
Updated On: 6/6/2013 3:16:59 PM
Located on Boca Chica Key, Key West Naval Air Station is four miles northeast of Key West proper. Known as “the Caribbean of the United States,” the Keys are as close as you can get to paradise without leaving the country. Due to the Keys’ proximity to both Cuba and the Caribbean, their history is as colorful as their inhabitants. The area has sheltered Spanish conquistadores, French pirates, Caribbean salvagers, Cuban shipbuilders and East Coast sailors. In fact, many of the structures built on the Keys date back to the 1850s, and many of the land titles and deeds were issued from the King of Spain. The surrounding communities offer so many unique sights and activities — each Key is a veritable “Treasure Island” for you to explore. read more...
Key West has a long-standing reputation as being the premier tourist/vacation destination as the southernmost city in the continental United States. However, Key West has a lot more to offer than just sun, beaches and surf. Architecture, history and adventure are on the menu year round. And let’s not forget Key limes, pineapples and “Pink Gold” (shrimp). The Mayor of Key West has begun a campaign to establish Key West as “the cleanest little city in America” — a plan that will boost the foundations of the island, thus improving its overall appearance. From mentoring and youth athletic sponsorship, to physically cleaning and tending to the island, Key West’s citizens have answered the call to strengthen the island as a whole.
Discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, the isle was named “Cayo Hueso” or “Isle of Bones” upon landing, because the ground was scattered with the bones of Native Americans — it was later found to be a Native burial ground. The term “Key West” is actually an English mispronunciation of Cayo Hueso, so named in 1822 when a small naval depot was established. Prior to U.S. occupation, the island chain was a haven for criminals and pirates as well as Native Americans. The island’s two earliest industries were fishing and salvage.
The salvage industry made Key West the largest and most prosperous city in Florida due to the large reefs flanking the island. Literally hundreds of trade ships struck and sank on the reefs, and divers salvaged millions of dollars worth of riches. To this day, the coast of Key West is one of the most-dived locations in the world due to the ships still sunken close to the coast.
However, from 1890 to 1935, the island’s population steadily declined, and construction/ industries all but ceased. In turn, WWII brought a population boom and industry increase, more than doubling in the 20-year span between 1940 to 1960. However, after 1960, bases shut down nationwide and Key West was no exception. Cyclical yet again, from 1960 to 1980, population declined slightly less than 30 percent. By 1990, the population was on the rise yet again (from 24,377 to 24,832), and currently the population has reached a plateau of around 25,000.
Key West has several bohemian-styled structures that date more than a century old — from tin-roofed “conch-style” homes, gingerbread houses and faithfully restored wooden homes built in the style of the island’s original visionaries. Several world-famous people have called Key West home, from Lou Gehrig to Thomas Edison to Tennessee Williams, and many of their former homes are available to tour and/ or photograph.
In the historic Bahama Village (settled in the 19th century by immigrants from the Bahamas), new stores and restaurants are springing up seemingly overnight. This area was a favorite of Hemingway, who was known to frequent the bars to arm wrestle and box with the locals. The Mallory Docks are a likely source for nighttime entertainment for both Islanders and tourists alike. Sidewalk cafés, open-air bars and dimly lit pubs line the streets, which are filled with jugglers, mimes and a multitude of street musicians. Some of the top attractions for tourists include:
Conch Tour Train
World-famous tour of Key West. This train takes you to the Hemingway Home, Duval Street, Mallory Square, and many other interesting and historical sights.
Discover the treacherous world of shipwreck salvaging and how it made Key West the richest city in the Florida Keys.
Key West Cemetery
A walk through this historic graveyard can tell as much about Key West’s eccentric character as any history lesson. Unusual whitewashed above-ground tombs and unique statues are perfect indicators of the Key’s colorful past.
Sightseeing tours of Key West, featuring over 100 points of interest. The trolleys make stops along the way for shopping, attractions and dining.
Still more to see
• Audubon House and Tropical Gardens
Tour of 1840s restored home of Captain John Huling Geiger, who hosted the famed bird artist John James Audubon. Its one-acre garden is filled with a great collection of tropical plants.
• Curry Mansion Museum
A restored 25-room Victorian mansion
• Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Key West’s No. 1 tourist attraction
• Little White House
The “Winter White House” of former President Harry S. Truman
• Mosquito Coast Wildlife Tours
Guided kayaking through the waters of the Keys to a mangrove island, with other biological highlights
• Adventure Charters and Tours
Guided tours of the Great White Heron and Key Deer National Wildlife Refuges
• Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square
A nightly entertainment with carnival performers and street vendors, backed by a sunset the likes of which you’ll see nowhere else.
In addition to these attractions, Key West offers others that are primarily for children and families. Some of the area’s best are listed below.
Key West Nature Preserve
Wooden walkways and trails take tourists through mangroves and forests. Here, children can observe indigenous butterfies, lizards, birds and other island fauna.
This well-equipped playground is a popular stop for families on their way to and from the beach, White Street Pier or Old Town Key West.
This large park has a fully equipped playground, basketball court and tennis courts. It is a popular spot for local events.
White Street Pier
This pier extends hundreds of yards over the Atlantic Ocean. When winds are calm or out of the north, a stroll along this pier reveals large schools of fish and numerous feeding shore birds. The end of the pier is a good spot for family fishing excursions.
Historic Seaport District
A public walkway was built around this former commercial-fishing harbor. This is a great place to take a stroll with your family. Children might find a wild sea turtle or see hungry tarpons and occasionally manatees from the walkway.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and Beach
This historic fortress at the southwest end of Key West is a fascinating place for children to play and watch boats as they sail out of Key West Harbor. The grounds offer a sandy beach with picnic tables and restrooms.
Key West Aquarium
The 50,000-gallon Atlantic shore exhibit gives visitors a close look at the Florida Keys mangroves near shore and reef.
Though Key West is known as a tropical paradise, don’t expect to find white sand beaches this far south. Though somewhat rocky, the beaches are lush nonetheless, and offer several different activities year-round. Here’s a small offering of some local beaches most accessible to swimming, surfing and sunbathing.
C. B. Harvey Rest Beach
Picnic areas, hiking and bike trails — a perfect family spot.
Higgs Beach/Astro Park
The premier beach for sunbathing on the Key.
Simonton Street Beach
An excellent location to watch sailing vessels.
Best spot for both surfing and windsurfing.
Popular beach for college students and tourists.
One of the only local beaches where dogs are welcome.
Key West has a mild tropical climate nearly year-round, due mainly to its proximity to the Florida Current. At its coldest, the winter temperature is only an average of 15 degrees cooler than the summer. However, there are only two major seasons: dry and wet. The “dry season” lasts from December through April and the “wet season” runs from May through October. During the rainy season, the Keys receive more than 75 percent of their annual rainfall. Hurricane season runs tandem with the rainy season, from June through October, with the most probable dates for a hurricane occurring from mid-August to early October. The understorms occur almost every month of the year but are most severe from July to September. Thee Florida Bay is also the waterspout capital of the world, experiencing anywhere from 40 to 550 waterspouts per year — most common from May through October.
Islamorada is widely regarded as the sport fishing capital of the world with two area seas brimming with inhabitants ready for the taking. Sailfish, tuna, bonefish and tarpon are just a few of the local inhabitants, as well as hundreds of others of the world’s most sought-after game fi sh. If observation is more your game, Islamorada has massive reefs and the Bay itself to explore and photograph.
All of the Keys share a similar history however, the rocks surrounding Islamorada (as well as the other islands) led Ponce de Leon to call the area “Los Martires” or “The Martyrs.” De Leon wrote, “...the rocks, from far away, appeared to be men in the throes of suffering.” The name stuck, mainly due to the sheer volume of ships wrecked on the rocky shoals, and the men lost at sea when the aforementioned vessels sank.
The Eagle offers dive ventures into local reefs and shipwrecks, as does the Coral Sea touring service. Windley Key was once two islands known as the Umbrella Keys. The water between was filled in, resulting in one island with a center of loosely sedimented rock. The main quarry complex is now a Florida Park Service geological site. The quarry was once the location of Mizner Industries (1928), a service that would channel out fossilized coral and ship it to Miami, where it would be “finished” into a marble-like product.
The process involved a “channeling machine” — a gasoline-powered, track-run chiseling device that would essentially separate the rock, so that it could be cut and cubed in large volume. The rusted skeleton of the channeling machine still stands on the northernmost rim of the quarry. The area also houses the Theater of the Sea, which gives adults and children over the age of 13 the chance to swim with dolphins, along with snorkeling and viewing of indigenous wildlife. At Lignumvitae Key State Botanical Site, you can ascend to the highest elevation in the Keys — a staggering 18 feet.
The northernmost island on the Key, Largo is only 50 miles from two of Florida’s major airports. Largo is located between the Everglades in the west and North America’s only living coral reef to the east.
Key Largo has a well-deserved title as the “Dive Capital of the World” because of its pioneering in marine conservation. In 1960, the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first conservatory of its kind, was opened, followed by the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary 15 years later in 1975. Statues, ships and reefs abound in the waters surrounding Key Largo, with many educational and entertainment opportunities.
In addition to the Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park and the National Marine Sanctuary, Key Largo hosts a wealth of diving opportunities. You can explore the Bibb and the Duane, dual 327- foot U.S. Coast Guard cutters, intentionally sunk in 1987 to attract divers of beginner to veteran status as a “safe” dive site. The Benwood Wreck, sunk in an attack during WWII, provides a firsthand glimpse of how schools of fish will thrive in a man-made environment, as swarms of grunt and porkfish (in addition to many others) call this ship “home.” Likewise, the Spiegel Grove, a 510-foot Navy vessel, was intentionally sunk in the summer of 2002 to add yet another “controlled” dive location. Lastly, Christ of the Abyss is an easily accessible Largo landmark, cast in bronze; it is sandwiched between the Dry Rocks coral formation in a shallow 25 feet of water.
If diving isn’t your game, Largo’s proximity to the Everglades makes it a prime location for kayakers, photographers, birdwatchers and other “nature-minded” people. On the island itself, many art galleries have opened and with them, several gourmet restaurants as well as pubs, hotels and shops for when the sun goes down.
Located in the middle of the Keys, Marathon is known for its delicate balance of booming industry and beautiful natural surroundings. It not only offers several well-maintained public beaches, but also a modern airport as well as a nationally recognized harbor (Boot Key Harbor), boasting many different marine activities. Marathon is also home to the Dolphin Research Center and Turtle Hospital, both known worldwide as specialist centers for marine-fauna rescue/conservation.
Marathon’s most well-documented trait is its standing as a fishing village. The “Golden Age” of Marathon was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, where it was the premier location of fishing imports for Florida. Flagler’s Railroad figures heavily in the history of Marathon — the railroad was an extension from Florida proper into the Keys; the route went through the Everglades, over open water and into the Keys. Flagler’s project broke ground in 1906 and employed the “assistance” of several thousand unskilled laborers. The task was daunting, and was projected to take five to six years with an estimated cost of $50 million. During construction, many of the laborers resided in Pigeon Key (a small isle in the present-day Marathon area). The project was completed in January 1912. However, in 1935, after 23 years of problem-free service, a giant tidal wave overtook the train on its stop in Homestead (a small station after Islamorada). The wave washed the train (and most of the village) out to sea. Days later, more than 500 casualties were found, but the real count remains unknown. The route was never rebuilt.
Marathon boasts two renowned conservation facilities, Dolphin Research Center and Turtle Hospital. It also has Crane Point Hammock, a 64-acre protected reserve of walking trails, museums and historic sites. Diving and snorkeling your fancy? Try Sombrero Reef, North America’s only living coral barrier reef. The reef is part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The island also has a modern, 55-plus bed hospital, as well as several dining and shopping hotspots.
BIG PINE/LOWER KEYS
The Lower Keys are Florida’s best-kept secret. They have been the “getaway spot” for more than 75 years. The islands are home to earthy mangrove forests as well as miles of unspoiled beaches. The area is also known for calm, warm diving water, away from the more commercial dive areas.
Big Pine had humble beginnings, most notably as a post-Depression shark-processing center. Workers would catch sharks, skin them and send their meat and skins north to Miami and New Jersey, respectively. Due to its relatively short shelf life, shark meat rarely made it north of Georgia. The skins, however, were a stronger alternative to traditional leather; sharkskin was tougher than cowhide and, once it was cured, was stronger still — a material called shagreen. The material became popular with shoemakers and garment-makers, though somewhat more costly than cowhide.
The multitude of lower Keys (Little Torch, Cudjoe, Sugarloaf and Summerland, among others) each have their own individual histories, and many offer localized museums and traditional restaurants in addition to many specialty shops.
The Lower Keys are home to many quiet resorts and single-family homes, in addition to RV campgrounds and picnic areas. Big Pine is the area’s “designated” shopping district, with several specialty shops as well as general goods and services. Little Duck Key (upper half of the Lower Keys) offers Veteran’s Memorial Park — pet-friendly, sandy beaches and a multitude of picnic areas — the perfect choice for a family day getaway. Bahia Honda Key, located a few miles away, has Bahia Honda State Park and Recreation Center, another perfect camping/ picnicking area with beaches that often make the “Top 10” lists of beautiful beaches in the country, for many magazines. Looe Key is the diving destination, with several possibilities for diving/snorkeling the Looe Coral Reef. T e Looe Coral Reef is home to the annual Underwater Music Festival — an off beat multimedia display staged by a local radio station. Previous highlights included a troupe of snorkeling, guitar-playing Elvises, an underwater art gallery, an underwater masked ball (complete with costumed dancers) and a “Divas of the Deep” exhibit, featuring sirens who “sang” along with the orchestra. In addition to the traditional broadcast, the festival is projected into the deep, via Lubell Laboratory speakers mounted beneath a flotilla of pontoon boats. Visit www.lowerkeyschamber.com for more information.