Key West - Attractions
Ernest Hemingway - known as much (in Key West, anyway) for his drinking as for his distinctive style and riveting tales of moral dilemmas - worked and drank here during one of his most fertile periods. From 1931 to 1940, Hemingway lived in this lovely Spanish-Colonial house, where he wrote several bestsellers including A Farewell to Arms.
It was also here, in the garden, that Hemingway installed Key West's first saltwater swimming pool: a construction that set him back so much that he pressed 'my last penny' into the cement on the pool's deck. It's still there today. Hemingway kept ownership of the house until his death in 1961.
Though most visitors are here to bask in the presumably still-active aura of the author's genius, others come just to see the 'Hemingway cats,' who rule the house and grounds - the brood features six toes per paw.
Key West Aquarium
This aquarium, right on Mallory Square, has been here since 1932. Though its age shows, the friendly and helpful staff make up for it, and besides, kids always have fun in aquariums. They have touch tanks with starfish, conchs, sea cucumbers and other interesting things and lots of fish tanks filled with catfish, doctorfish, snappers, angelfish and more. Outside are the tanks for barracudas, sharks and sawfish; there are also turtles. They sometimes bring around live sharks for visitors to touch as part of their 'Pet a Shark' program. Signs are well done and staff members are happy to answer your questions.
The site of Key West's nightly sunset celebrations, Mallory Square is a cobblestoned area at the northwestern end of town that overlooks the old boat harbour. Even if you're not up for the evening festivities, this is a great place to start your grand tour of the city, or pick up several souvenirs to commemorate your experience.
If none of the knick-knacks seem tempting, head down Duvall St and pick up a Hemingway Hammer (151-proof rum, banana and strawberry liquor, blackberry brandy and a dash of white rum) instead at Sloppy Joe's Bar, the Hemingway Hangout of record. Three blocks away and almost as famous, Jimmy Buffet's Maragaritaville Cafe serves cheeseburgers in paradise.
Hangover-free attractions abound as well. Audubon House wasn't built until after the famous painter visited in the early 1800s, but has a nice collection of antiquities and historical anecdotes, plus simply fabulous gardens. Jessie Porter's Heritage House & Robert Frost Cottage is a Caribbean-colonial showpiece with small museums to those two artists.
Mel Fisher Museum
The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Museum exhibits the galleon treasures of the Santa Margarita and the Atocha, discovered by the late Mel Fisher in 1980-85 (he started his search for these galleons in 1969). The various jewels, tools, coins and navigational pieces are displayed on the ground floor, along with a world map showing the routes of those ships and some hands-on stuff (touch an item that you can't see and figure out what it is). On the 2nd floor you'll find displays of modern diving techniques, an electrolysis tank and the like. Mel, whose motto was 'Today's the day', could be seen walking through the museum until months before his death in 1998.
There are two museums dedicated to study of the 'wreckers', who found unique job opportunities living this close to treacherous waterways pummeled by violent fall storms. In Key West and Islamadora, wreckers would salvage goods from sinking and sunken ships. They weren't pirates - they were federally licensed workers who would scavenge the wrecks, bringing the cargo into Key West to auction.
The Wreckers' Museum/the Oldest House was the home of Francis B Watlington. It's filled with period antiques and has enjoyable, volunteer-led tours. More expensive and more interesting is the Key West Shipwreck Historeum, which has a narrated film portraying the lives and times of the wreckers. Knowledgeable volunteers explain how Key West developed as a port.