BY JANET STEINBERG
This is not an April Fool’s joke. It may be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s true.
On April 23,1982, Key West, Florida seceded from the United States of America and formed The Conch Republic. Their motto, and the Conch Republic flag, reads: “We Seceded Where Others Failed”.
|SYMBOLIC FLAG OF KEY WEST|
The trouble began when the United States Border Patrol set up a roadblock and inspection point on highway US 1 at the place where the highway connected the Florida Keys to the Mainland. Vehicles were stopped and searched for narcotics and illegal immigrants, thus creating traffic delays and hassles for tourists.
The complaints of the Conchs (Key Westerners’ nickname…pronounced konks) went unanswered, so the City Council took matters into their own hands. They protested saying that since they were being treated as a foreign country, they might as well be one. They took the name of the Conch Republic and declared war against the United States.
|LOCAL CONCHS IN JUNKANOO BAND|
The April 23 war lasted one minute as the city’s Mayor (who was proclaimed Prime Minister) symbolically broke a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a naval uniform. The Prime Minister then surrendered and applied for one billion dollars in foreign aid.
Key West did not get the billion dollars in foreign aid, but they did get a billion dollars worth of publicity.
Cayo Hueso, or "The Island of Bones", as the 18th century Spaniards called Key West, is located 155 miles south of Miami. The Overseas Highway, sometimes called the "Highway that Goes to Sea", is 113 miles of roadway (including the Seven-mile Bridge at Marathon) that leapfrogs the Florida Keys to their most southerly point.
Today, century-old forts and gingerbread mansions remain as a tribute to the colorful heritage of what was once Florida's largest, and America's richest, city. The best way to see the city in a short time is by riding the Old Town Trolley and the Conch Tour Train.
|CONCH TOUR TRAIN|
Palm-studded streets shade the pastel retreats that once housed such notables as Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and John Audubon. "Papa" Hemingway, the first important writer to discover and make Key West his home, arrived there in 1928 when he was working on “A Farewell to Arms”. It was in Key West that he also penned most of his great novels including “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “To Have and Have Not” and “The Macomber Affair”.
Today, visitors can tour the National Historic Landmark that was the home of Pulitzer Prize winner Ernest Hemingway. Several items of the property are of particular note. A replica of the ceramic cat sculpture, given to the cat-loving “Papa” Hemingway by his friend Picasso, sits atop a chest.
A discarded Sloppy Joe's urinal, given to Hemingway by his good friend Joe Russell (owner of Hemingway’s hang-out joint “Sloppy Joes”), was turned into what must be the most famous feline watering hole in the world. An old Spanish olive jar forms the top of the fountain. The trough that forms the base of the fountain is the above-mentioned urinal. Hemingway’s then-wife Pauline surrounded the trough with colorful tiles in an attempt to disguise its true identity.
Also noteworthy is a penny embedded in the poolside patio. Having paid $20,000 for the first swimming pool built in Key West (in the late 1930's), Hemingway took a penny from his pocket, pressed it into the wet cement of the surrounding patio. Hemingway then told his wife: "Well, you might as well take my last cent." The wife, Hemingway's second of four, was ultimately divorced. The poolside penny remains.
A living memorial to the late author has also been preserved at his Spanish-colonial mansion. Approximately 40-50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats, descendants of the nearly 50 cats who lived there with "Papa", still call 907 Whitehead Street home.
Harry Truman’s Little White House, which initially served as the command headquarters during the Spanish American War, first served as President Truman’s winter White House in 1946. Today, the Harry S. Truman Little White House is a fascinating public museum as well as a retreat and place of government business by our nation's leaders.
|PRESIDENT HARRY S. TRUMAN'S LITTLE WHITE HOUSE|
Another major attractions in Key West is the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum where you can view the Mother Lode from the treasure-laden Spanish galleon Atocha.
The picturesque 21-acre, 1847 Key West Cemetery, in the “dead” center of the island's historic district, is a photographic gem filled with humor and history. Carved into the headstone of a widow's deceased philandering husband is this message: "At least I know where he's sleeping tonight."
As you walk along Seventh Avenue, a black archway with the letters "B'nai Zion" marks the entry to the Jewish Cemetery. To the immediate left is a large white crypt with a facing tablet expounding another expression of Conch humor. It reads: "I told you I was sick."
Two photo ops are not to be missed in Key West. The Southernmost Point in the continental United States, only 90 miles from Cuba, is marked by a large, red concrete buoy at the corner of South and Whitehead Streets.
|SOUTHERNMOST POINT CONCRETE BUOY|
The small green Mile Marker 0 sign, at the junction of Fleming and Whitehead Streets, marks the southern tip of U.S. Highway 1.
|MILE MARKER 0 (ZERO)|
Accommodations range from the many charming B&Bs throughout the city, to the Pier House Resort and the Westin Resort & Marina in the heart of Old Town, to the luxurious, historic 1920s Casa Marina at Higgs Beach.
You really haven't been to Key West until you've downed a few at Captain Tony's and Sloppy Joe's. When Hemingway first came to Key West, he frequented a rough and tumble fisherman's saloon at 428 Greene Street. This became the original Sloppy Joe's Bar, "Papa's" favorite haunt.
When Sloppy’s rent was raised, owner Joe Russell instructed his patrons to pick up their drinks and bar stools, and they all moved to its present location at 201 Duval Street. The Greene Street saloon then became known as Captain Tony's.
Call them colorful...call them honky-tonk...or call them tourist traps. Call them whatever you like. But, by any other name, Captain Tony's and Sloppy Joe's are much more than mere saloons. They are symbolic personifications of Key West itself.
|SLOPPY JOE'S BAR|
Whether it's Conch-Caribbean, Cuban, Chinese, or Classical American food you prefer, you can find them all---and more---in Key West.
Of course, there’s always a cheeseburger at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville. If you don’t mind eating in an unpainted funky shack, there’s B.O.'s Fish Wagon for a fresh fish sandwich served on fresh-baked Cuban bread. A hand-painted sign states: “if it looks like fish, and smells like fish, it ain’t fresh”. You’ll either “get this place”, or you won’t!
However for a lovely dining experience, SHOR American Seafood Grill serves the best of the area's fresh-off-the-boat seafood in a million-dollar setting with a drop-dead view of the Gulf of Mexico and the glorious Key West sunset. A short ferry ride from the Westin Hotel will sail you to Sunset Key where an equally glorious sunset is an extra bonus that comes with a divine dinner at Latitudes.
Yes, the sun sets.
It happens every night. It happens everywhere in the world. But, in Key West, Florida, it is much more than something that just happens. It is a happening.
|KEY WEST SUNSET|
Sunset at continental America's southernmost city--that flaming moment when the great orange ball seems to drop off the edge of the universe--is a fiery celebration. It is the sun, the green-blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and the people. It is the local Conch, the visitor, the juggler, the belly dancer, and the mime…all of whom gather at Mallory Square Pier for nature's nightly spectacular.
This island of contrasts is a place where pirates once preyed and presidents once played. It is a place where straight meets gay, where drunk drinks with sober. It is Caribbean and continental, traditional and avant garde. It is the Conch people, conch fritters, conch chowder, the Conch Tour Train, Conch High School, and Conch cheerleaders known as Conchettes, just to name a few. By the time you leave this end of the Florida Keys, this end of the highway, and this end of the rainbow, I can assure you, you’ll be conch-ed out.
JANET STEINBERG is the winner of 38 national Travel Writer Awards and an International Travel Consultant with The Travel Authority in Mariemont, Ohio.