Sunday, November 29, 2009

Travelogue: Key West

Dick and I both prefer warm weather and sunshine to drizzle damp and cold, so we planned a Monday to Friday get-away to Key West, Florida over Thanksgiving. Dick had never been there, and the last time I visited was with my grandparents in 1961. I remember because even though I was only ten, the newspapers were full of the news of Ernest Hemingway's death.

My grandparents and I arrived by car, and stayed in a traditional motel along the highway. Dick and I flew to Key West and stayed in a nice bed and breakfast. The Heron House is a restored Classical Revival style house on Simonton street, in Old Town very near Duval street. We had a lovely and quiet room with views of their tropical garden, complete with waterfall. The place serves a continental breakfast every day, which was a little disappointment to us. Most B&Bs we've visited have a traditional sit-down breakfast, and an opportunity to chat with other guests and the hosts. This had a much more informal atmosphere, and we ended up not talking with anyone else. To be sure the breakfast buffet of coffee, cereal, juice and sweet rolls was all we needed to get started each day, and the patio was pretty. It just wasn't the homelike atmosphere we had expected. Think small inn rather than bed and breakfast.

The weather was comfortable, and I loved being able to shed my jeans and wear Capri pants, short sleeves and sandals. It rained a little each day, but we still were able to see all we wanted. We walked everywhere, though we could have rented bicycles or an electric car. Next time I'd do that, since my airplane-swollen toes raised blisters the first day.

Key West is 90 miles from Cuba, which is closer than it is to Miami. Key West once had many cigar factories, which are all gone now. But there are shops that sell cigars, and at least one that features Cuban-themed merchandise. Cuban grilled pork sandwiches are available at many restaurants, and in fact that' s what I had for lunch on Thanksgiving. Delicious.

We really didn't have a bad meal anywhere. I had delicious fish tacos one night, a pile of boiled pink shrimp another. There is a vegetarian cafe that served the best falafel I've ever tasted. But my favorite place was here. Actually this sign marks two restaurants, Alonzos downstairs and Berlins upstairs. We ate twice at Alonzos, which is the more casual of the two places. We kept ordering appetizer plates to split, all sorts of fresh oysters, and bowls of white chili. I had lobster/crab cakes that I remember fondly for a very long time indeed. We loved the bread pudding and the key lime pie here too.

On Tuesday we took an old town trolley tour of Key West. I was a little unhappy about the cost, but to be fair we could have gotten on and off the trolley all day and saved ourselves some walking. We just rode the big loop and got some sense of where the big attractions are and something of the history of the place. Our driver and guide was friendly and informative, and I don't regret spending the money. There is another similar tour in the format of a train, but we didn't try that.

We enjoyed our visit to the Audubon house. This photo is a little wooden bowl of nests, feathers and shells that the artist collected. The house is lovely, filled with antiques and bird prints, and there is a pretty garden on the grounds. I heard that sometimes there are orchids blooming, but the day we visited none were.

Another historic site we both wanted to see was the Hemingway house. Of course we were both English majors in college, and have read most of the Hemingway novels and short stories. I used to teach The Old Man and the Sea, though I generally liked it better than any of my students. The house is lovely, and our guide was friendly and well informed. There were a handful of children on our tour, and they seemed most interested in the many six-toed cats that roam the property, many resting on Spanish antiques and old textiles. Here one is curled up on a chair in Hemingway's writing studio, oblivious to the chattering tourists and their cameras.

There are lots of literary connections in the keys. Robert Frost wintered there and wrote poetry. Tennessee Williams wrote plays in a downtown hotel. I believe poet Elizabeth Bishop had a house here, Zane Gray spent winters nearby, and there are probably others as well.

On Thanksgiving we took a stroll to the historic cemetery. We both like looking at the old monuments, and seeing what history we can learn from the stones. This cemetery has a section devoted to those killed when the Maine was blown up in Havana Harbor. I was interested that most of the graves are above ground, as they are in New Orleans. The island sits on solid rock, and it is very expensive to excavate. This rooster, one of hundred of chickens that roam the city, was finding some insects to feast on.

We never went to the beach, but we did walk around the harbor, admiring the boats, feeding the fish, having a few margaritas and beers. Key West is famous for its sunsets, and thousands gather at Mallory Square to applaud the setting sun each night. We skipped that, but we did sign up for a sunset ride on a catamaran. We've done this in Mexico and in Jamaica, and always have fun. The "cruise" was a two hour ride with complimentary beverages. By the end of the two hours everyone knew each other and was in an exceedingly good mood.

The sunset cruise was our last activity in Key West. Friday morning we headed out for a lovely breakfast at Sarabeth's (shrimp and bacon omelet), then packed and headed for the Key West airport.

I was surprised to be pulled aside and patted down in security, since most people look at me and wave me right through. The last time I was patted down was in 1972 in Paris after a series of hijackings that led to an international airline strike. But other than that, our flight to Miami and then on to Chicago was smooth and trouble free. It's good to be home again, and the cat seems relieved to have us back.


JoAnn said...

great travelogue with wonderful photos!

Bonnielynn said...

What a great travelogue of your trip!!!
I have been to Key West and almost could feel myself walking along with you. The cemetary, Hemingway's house, the trolley, and I too had blisters from wearing the wrong type of shoes !!

Thank you for sharing this with your readers.

Charles said...

An excellent Key West blog with nice photos. This is a great vacation spot with so many things to see and do. The best place to eat in Key West is the Conch Republic Seafood Company at the seaport for your next trip. All the best.