Key West, Florida is unlike any place you've ever been. Sunsets are celebrated, roosters roam the streets, conch fritters are a recognized food group, drinking is an Olympic sport and everyone—and I do mean everyone—has a story.
Everything about this place is quirky, especially its history. Texas may threaten to secede from the United States from time to time, but Key West actually did it. In April of 1982, the Keys declared itself the Conch Republic—named for the popular shellfish Key West residents devour daily.
The historic event was an act of protest against the United States Border Patrol when a blockade was set-up on US Highway 1, just north of the entrance into the Florida Keys outside of (believe it or not) Skeeter's Last Chance Saloon. The roadblock was intended to stop illegal aliens from accessing the mainland, but the ensuing traffic jams resulted in a decline in tourism to the Keys and inevitable economic hardship.
Outraged at the island’s isolation, "Skeeter" teamed up with Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow and several determined residents. The group sought an injunction to stop the blockade but were denied. The following day Mayor Wardlow stood in Mallory Square, read a proclamation of secession then ceremoniously whacked a federal agent over the head with a loaf of stale Cuban bread. The Conch Republic's Civil Rebellion lasted approximately one minute and was followed by a surrender to the US Navy Admiral but not before the Conchs blasted the Naval base with their water guns. To this day Key West residents have dual citizenship as Americans and Conchs. Newcomers to the island are granted a freshwater Conch status after seven years.
Get acquainted with Key West's colorful characters, history and unique attractions aboard the World Famous Conch Train Tour. For over 50 years, Conch Train Tours have introduced visitors to Key West's past with stories of pirates, Indians, visionaries, artists and literary legends like Ernest Hemingway who wrote many of his greatest works from his home in Key West surrounded by his six toed cats.
I joined the Conch Train Tour led by Mark, a musician originally from Philadelphia who has lived in Key West long enough to earn freshwater Conch status. As we rode through the streets of this eclectic town, Mark told of over 150 little hidden lanes throughout the town. He assured us that exploration of these hidden gems would yield secret gardens, mad parrots and undiscovered treasures. All tours are "hop on hop off" but I suggest riding the full route then venturing back to places of interest. You don’t want to miss the tall tales of Key West.
Top attractions (besides the characters) include the Key West Aquarium with open tanks where nurse sharks swim just out of reach. There’s also a touch tank filled with starfish and other mellow creatures of the sea. At the Key West lighthouse, climb the 88 steps to the top for a view of the island. A lighthouse museum exhibits belongings, photographs and words of the lighthouse keepers and their families.
Towering over the historic seaport, the Custom House Museum is a beautiful example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. Built in 1891, it was originally home to the island's customs office, postal service and district courts. Today this national landmark is an award-winning museum with two floors of exhibits that weave together two centuries of history, art, people and events.
The main attraction in Key West is a natural one—the nightly sunsets. Crowds of tourists and locals gather at Mallory Square every evening for a Sunset Celebration. While you wait for the brilliant orange sun to sink into the sea you can browse arts and crafts booths, munch on conch fritters from the food carts or consult a psychic about your future. Street performers of every type abound and the tightrope walking cats are always a hit.
The strangeness continues into the Key West Cemetery. Located in the dead center of Old Town many of the historic whitewashed above-ground tombstones have unusual epitaphs. A hypochondriac's tombstone reads "I told you I was sick." A cheating husband is remembered by the headstone inscription his wife commissioned declaring, "At least I know where he's sleeping tonight." Amid the strangeness is the rather large plot of General Abraham Lincoln Sawyer, a 40 inch midget whose final wish was to be buried in a man-size tomb.
That’s Key West, folks. As one resident told me, "This is where the weird go pro."
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