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Trip Report Key West trip report

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Was able to visit Key West not that long ago, and enjoyed it there very much. The original itinerary I was going to use is found here:

http://www.fodors.com/community/united-states/possible-itineraries-for-miami-key-west-st-augustine-tallahassee.cfm

As it turned out, an extra half day was welcome here, given the number of attractions. Here's what I actually did:

============================

One day

-Harry S Truman Little White House
-Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Center
-Audubon House and Tropical Garden
-Key West Museum of Art and History
-Key West Shipwreck Historeum
-Key West Aquarium

The Truman Little White House is arguably more interesting from a historic rather than architectural standpoint. This was where Truman went on guys-only working retreats while president, and apparently several significant policies and decisions were formulated or signed off on here. There are some personal effects of Truman's, including desks, beds, and a custom-made poker table that got good use while he was there. There are also a couple rooms that discuss Truman's life, presidency, and legacy. The tour was excellent, very informative.

Shipwrecks have happened frequently in this area, and wreck salvage was big business here. The Mel Fisher Center tells about one of the most persistent -- and ultimately most successful -- such folks. Fisher and his workers were able to locate a treasure trove of stuff with many years persistence. The museum contains lots of salvaged items: gems, gold, silver, jewelry, religious artifacts, cannonballs, crockery, anchors, and such -- plus information about Fisher's mode of work. Upstairs is information on slave ships and pirates. A very good place to visit.

John James Audubon never actually lived in or even stayed in the house named for him -- instead, it's named for him because when he came through the region, he asked the house owner if he could use plants found in the adjacent garden as background for several of the bird depictions he was preparing. This is a vintage 1840s style dwelling with nice furnishings, attractive moldings and similar detail work, and a large number of Audubon prints. The tour was brief and confined to the ground level only -- upstairs is explored on one's own. This was excellent, well worth the visit, and the surrounding gardens were nicely kept up and well worth exploring in addition.

The best thing about the Key West Art and History Museum was the building itself, a Romanesque beauty that originally served as the local Customs House. There were some okay historic artifacts focused on Flagler's railroad to Key West, Ernest Hemingway, and salvage wrecking (big business in the 19th century here). The art was local and forgettable.

The Shipwreck Historeum was kind of hokey, with actors in costume and in character, containing shipwreck artifacts of varying kinds. It ties together aspects of the Fisher Museum and Art/History Museum interestingly enough. Fun especially for younger folks, and there's a tower one can climb for the view. Maybe less essential if you've gone to the Fisher and Art/History, but not too bad, either.

As one poster rightly mentioned when I put up the proposed itinerary for Key West on an earlier thread, the Aquarium is indeed more of a little kid's focused attraction. There are sea critters to pet, and tanks large and small with local fish and such. Unusual here is the presence of sea turtles of several species, interesting to look at. There are also restored wall murals from the 30s that graced the walls at the aquarium's opening and later deteriorated from lack of upkeep. They've been recreated, but I didn't find them compelling.

Also found Mallory Square, which is close by the aquarium, and later came back for sunset here, which brings out tons of sunset peepers as well as street vendors and street musicians. Fun to experience.

============================================

Another day

-Ernest Hemingway House
-Key West Lighthouse Museum
-St. Paul's Episcopal Church
-Oldest House in Key West
-Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden
-Key West Cemetery
-Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
-Southernmost Point in the Continental United States

Hemingway's House was for me one of the most interesting attractions in the city. It's an attractive 19th century house originally built by one of the city's most successful wreckers, and Hemingway spent parts of the last 30 years of his life here. It has loads of the author's memorabilia and some of his furnishings. There's a really pleasant garden surrounding the house, a large in-ground pool that reaches depths of 9 feet in spots, and best of all, the writer's studio space preserved with his personal effects. The place is overrun by cats, all descendents of the feline Hemingway first brought here, and some of the cats have six toes on their feet. The tour was brief and breezy, though enjoyable. For me, a must.

The Lighthouse Museum consists of the beacon tower and a restored keeper's quarters. The latter has a restored room and perfunctory exhibits on the lighthouse itself. The former can be climbed for a good surrounding view. Not bad.

A walk down Duval Street went past St. Paul's, a striking edifice that looks like a rather sturdy cross between a house of worship and a fort. There's some pleasant modern stained glass inside and a quiet feel. Okay for a pop-in.

The Oldest House is a few blocks down from the church. It's an understated place with some furnishings of the period, originally housing the harbormaster for the city. The outside reminded me a bit of Madam John's Legacy house in New Orleans, with similar raised first floor construction. The tour happens infrequently (I came in just a short while after it started) and is low-key. Okay, and best of all, it's free unlike much else here.

Without doubt the worst attraction seen was Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden. It's pretty much just an overgrown and unattended vacant lot with some tamped down trail areas and a building undergoing renovation. The unmanned jar at the entrance requests $10 to enter, and after spending the 10 minutes this place deserved, I put in far less than that. An utter waste of time.

The Key West Cemetery is an interesting place to see. There are many stacked oven-style community tombs like in New Orleans cemeteries, though here, the problem is not flooding that would wash out the bodies, but the coral rock immediately below the surface that made digging a grave nearly impossible. Some individual graves are set slightly above ground, while others seem to have been below-ground burials. There are Jewish and Catholic sections, as well as a memorial and burial plot area to soldiers killed in the explosion of the battleship Maine and Cuban freedom fighters. A few have funny inscriptions, such as the one that says "I Told You I Was Sick" or the fellow buried in the Catholic section whose epitaph reads "Oy!"

The Butterfly Conservatory is a nice example of its type. There's a brief preparatory exhibit on the life of these insects, followed by entrance to a large screened-in area full of tropical plants and loaded with butterflies and moths and small flying birds, as well as a few underfoot running quail. The butterflies are multi-shaped and colorful, and the few moths seen were huge. Warm new-age style music is a nice touch here. Very nice indeed.

Another of Key West's silly attractions is the so-called Southernmost Point in the Continental United States (it's not really -- that's apparently located over on the nearby closed-to-the-public naval base). The spot is marked by a large fake concrete buoy painted to proclaim its supposed unique status. It's clearly a favorite photo-op for tourists, who were lined up in droves for a chance to have their picture taken there. A hoot.

=========================

An additional half day or so

-Ft. Zachary Taylor State Park
-Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
-East Martello Tower Museum

Yes, there's a ruined fort at the Ft. Taylor Park. There are a few cannons and cannonballs there, as well as some open areas located directly off the central parade grounds. Unfortunately, the elements haven't been too kind to this place, as parts are now structurally unsound and even falling apart. You can walk up on what are now the top battlements (the top two stories have been long-ago removed) and get a decent view of the immediate surrounding area. It reminds some of its contemporary, Ft. Sumter, only less well maintained. The park also features a pleasant beach area, though the water looks cloudy and the bottom appears to drop off fast -- might not be a good swimming option. Still, it's an enjoyable area to wander and soak in some nature.

The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center is located close by. Its exhibits excellently explain the surprisingly diverse ecosystems of the Keys, both on land and underwater, as well as threats to its existence. There's a mock-up of an underwater laboratory scientists are using to research this region, as well as a few aquarium type entities. A surprisingly effective film is shown throughout the day, beautifully photographed and nicely told, that underscores the ecosystems here and how important preservation is. It's free, and for my taste one of the city's better attractions.

The East Martello Tower is an extension of the Key West Museum of Art and History, housed in an abandoned 19th century fort located near the airport and bus station. It's a dustier place than its companion, and the art here is no better than downtown's version, including a large collection of rusting out folk sculpture. There's also a collection of historic artifacts: a horse-drawn hearse, a Cuban refugee raft, model airplanes, and a doll that's supposed to be haunted. Again, probably most interesting for its building than anything else. You can climb the short tower here as well for a bit of a view.

====================

Will definitely say that the suggestion to keep an eye out for eccentric locals was spot-on. There are no shortage of them: an older guy riding a bike with two huge fishing poles and a blaring old radio, a man who feeds the ubiquitous feral roosters and chickens near Mallory Square (there are chickens all over the place in the city), loads of street performers and street musicians at the Mallory Square sunset. Duval Street is this city's answer to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, though I avoided it during its apparently crazy late evenings. Still, a fun place to walk if you ignore the many t-shirt stores. And while many things are within walking distance, I was able to make good use of the local buses to visit out-of-the-way places like East Martello Tower.

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