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Journeys in Paradise....


When writer John Dos Passos rode the train down to Florida's Key West in the 1920s, he described the trip to literary pal Ernest Hemingway as "one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life." Key West has had that effect on many tourists over the years, including cruise ship passengers, some of whom come for the day and then return to stay.

Few U.S. cities can rival Florida's Key West for character...make that characters. This colorful, quirky island--the southernmost point in the continental United States--has been home, sweet home to a passel of colorful, quirky characters who call themselves conchs after the colorful mollusks that thrive in the waters here.

Hemingway, for example, left such a mark on Key West that digging up his old stomping grounds is reason enough to visit the island.

"Papa" moved to Key West in 1931 with his second wife, Pauline, and purchased a house at 907 Whitehead Street. Standing at the typewriter --he had a bad back--he created parts or all of For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Green Hills of Africa, A Farewell to Arms, and Death in the Afternoon.

Hemingway is one of the world's most famous authors and a Key West icon. The Hemingway home, now a registered national historic landmark, was built in Spanish Colonial style of native rock hewn from the area. They furnished the house with rugs, tiles, chandeliers, and furniture brought from all over the world. Though the Hemingway family sold the home after he killed himself in the early 1960s, the house and its furnishings have been kept intact, as if Hemingway were about to return from an afternoon of fishing or drinking.

Besides his simple study, left as he liked it for writing, two other things demonstrate that the home and Key West still belong to Papa. One is the shrubbery that the nature-loving writer planted; the other is the multitude of six-toed cats which roam the place--descendants of Hemingway's own cats and a living link between the man and the island.

Character Study

A visit to the Hemingway house is obligatory for tourists. But if you want to meet live Key West characters, head for Mallory Square. If there is a single Key West attraction that sums up the entire island experience, it's the daily Sunset Celebration. Every evening, as the glowing orange ball sinks beneath the horizon, Key West's colorful characters turn out to celebrate the colorful event.

Legend has it that playwright Tennessee Williams started the tradition--gin and tonic in hand--when he lived in Key West. But Key West's spectacular sunsets have been drawing gasps of admiration for centuries.

Artist and naturalist John James Audubon wrote glowingly of Key West's spectacular sunsets in the early 1800s. After he arrived here to study and draw birds and plants in their natural habitats, Audubon stayed at the 205 Whitehead Street home of Captain John H. Geiger, a salvager and harbor pilot. Each day, Audubon explored the mangroves in search of native birds and plants, sometimes starting at 3am and working into the following night.

The house and gardens have been completely restored and now comprise a public museum called the Audubon House & Tropical Gardens. The home features original hinges, hardware, and wood, as well as period furnishings and numerous engravings by Audubon, including many from his famous "Birds of America" folio. It is believed that Audubon sighted and drew 19 new species while visiting the Keys and the Dry Tortugas.

We have no reason to believe that the Key West sunset was any less spectacular in Audubon's day. But now the Key West sunset is much more than a natural phenomenon. It has it's own nonprofit organization, the Key West Cultural Preservation Society, and a cast full of quirky characters who give it....character. On any given evening you'll meet up with arts and crafts exhibitors, street performers, food sellers, and even psychics. It’s a multi-cultural melange that has to be experienced to be believed.

A bit more subdued, but just as entertaining, is a visit to the Key West Cemetery, which is filled with island characters. On 21 prime acres in the heart of the historic district, the cemetary boasts tombstones inscribed with all sorts of odd, if witty, comments. "I Told You I was Sick" bemoans one cemetery resident. Key West conchs seem to have a penchant for nicknames. Sharp-eyed cemetery snoops will find tombstones bearing monikers such as Bunny, Shorty, and The Tailor.

You'll also uncover some colorful tales at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Museum. Typical of Key West characters, the late Mel Fisher was the stuff of tall tales, a fortune hunter who prowled the world in search of treasures buried under the waves.

The museum displays many of his finds, including part of more than $400 million in gold and silver from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a 17th century Spanish galleon that sunk just 45 miles west of Key West.

After all that exploring, it may be time for a margarita. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Duval Street will fit the bill--and probably filled with colorful Conchs like Jimmy, whose songs, poems, and stories have come to symbolize island life.

With so much going for Key West, it's not surprising that the island has captured the hearts of many who have visited, including President Harry Truman, whose 2.27-acre estate has come to be called the Little White House.

After he discovered Key West in 1946, Truman became so enamored of the island that he returned every few months during his presidency. In a letter to his wife, Bess, Truman wrote: "I've a notion to move the capital to Key West and just stay."

Key West as the capital of the United States? Ah, what a wonderful country that would be!