27-28 January 2016
Key West, Florida: The Sun Also Sets

By Corey Sandler, Destination Consultant Silversea Cruises

Key West island, at the tip of the Florida Keys archipelago in the Straits of Florida, is a small place with an oversized place in American culture.

It is closer to Cuba (94 miles) than it is to Miami, about 129 miles away.

The Spanish established their colony in Florida. They named the little island at the bottom of the archipelago, Cayo Hueso­, Spanish for “bone cay.” The cay, the low island, was littered with the bones of natives, who used it as a communal graveyard.

During the American Civil War, Florida seceded and joined the Confederate States. However, Key West remained in Union hands because of the U.S. Naval base there.

Major industries in the early 19th century included fishing, salt production, and salvage of the many shipwrecks offshore. About 1860, the salvage industry made Key West the largest and richest city in Florida, and the wealthiest town per capita in the U.S.

The town was noted for the unusually high concentration of fine furniture and chandeliers that locals used in their homes after salvaging them from wrecks.

The Caribbean is still littered with the wrecks of galleons and other vessels, and Key West is still a center for treasure hunters.

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Sculpture by Seward Johnson at the old Customs House in Key West 

At the beginning of World War II the Navy increased its presence greatly; at its peak employing 15,000 military personnel and 3,400 civilians. The base included Naval Air Station Key West, a training facility for pilots.

The area next to Fort Taylor became a submarine pen and was used for the Fleet Sonar School.

And it was here that President Harry S. Truman chose to make his Winter White House. He used the commandant’s home on 11 visits to Key West, a total of 175 days.

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The Truman Little White House in Key West

Later, Dwight D. Eisenhower stayed in Key West recuperating from a heart attack. And in November 1962, John F. Kennedy visited Key West a month after the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Presidents Clinton and Carter also made visits in their post-presidency.

Ernest Hemingway is said to have written part of A Farewell to Arms while living above the showroom of a Ford dealership at 314 Simonton Street. And it was here Hemingway was introduced to deep-sea fishing.

During his stay he wrote or worked on Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. He used Depression-era Key West as one of the locations in To Have and Have Not—his only novel with scenes in the United States.

Tennessee Williams became a regular visitor in 1941 and is said to have written the first draft of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947 at the La Concha Hotel. He bought a house in 1949 and listed Key West as his primary residence until his death in 1983.

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A selection of watering holes in Key West,  including the second incarnation of Sloppy Joe’s, a favorite of Ernest Hemingway

Today, they do not need much—or any—excuse for a party in Key West.

This is, after all, a place where every night hundreds of tourists and many locals gather at Mallory Square to watch the same thing that happened roughly 24 hours ago: the setting of the sun.

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Sunset at Mallory Square,  which comes complete with jugglers,  fire-eaters, swird-swallowers, and tourists.

But there are a few special celebrations each year, including Conch Republic Independence Day, several Gay Pride events, and one festival that seems to combine all others: the Key West Fantasy Fest.

It is held for ten days leading up and including Halloween at the end of October. The 2015 event had the theme, “All Hallows Intergalactic Freak Show,” which seems to me to be pretty much the theme every year.

To our guests leaving in Fort Lauderdale, I wish you arrivederci: until we meet again.

Text and images copyright 2016 by Corey Sandler. All rights reserved. If you would like to purchase a high-resolution image, please contact me.


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