Keys Please!

You'd think that having been to South Florida so many times, I'd be familiar with the Keys. Well, I had always wanted to go, but there was always a "but". This time, I was determined, and I had even printed out some information about Hemingway's house before the trip. Vamos!

El Rancho Motel

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Ishtar on July 20, 2004

Considering that we literally dropped into this place, I would say the accommodations were heaven sent. Not having had the time to make any reservations or do proper research, we relied on a local newspaper with hotel listings. What turned out to be even more advantageous was the fact that we were within minutes of Duval Street.

The exterior was quite lush with vegetation and a huge banana tree loomed over the pool, which looked like an overgrown jacuzzi. No matter - when you are sweltering, the size of the water hole matters not. The first room we were assigned was #10, and the thing you want to check before you even breathe is the A/C. We landed in room 9 shortly thereafter; then I had a look around. The room reminded me of something we had rented on Cape Cod, or perhaps Greenport in New York. It was meant to accommodate three people, so technically, the extra bed could have been a sofa or have the table and two chairs we ditched in room #10. Tropical motif fabrics on windows and bedspread; closet with two or three hangers at most. Bathroom was very clean, with mid-size standup shower; I had been wise to bring along my own toiletries, since the bar soap we received broke when I opened it. Mmmm, a relic perhaps?

This is also the kind of bathroom where the door can break your knees if you are in a sitting position; you get the picture.

There is a telephone, but don't even attempt the internet. The TV hovers overhead the way they do in hospital rooms. The next morning, Chuck woke up with red bite marks on his body and swore that the bedspread contained some species of vicious insect. My skin was untouched.

Don’t expect down pillows and comforters here, though they could have been more generous with the pillows. An unexpected pleasure came by way of a patio table with chairs right outside our room. It became a terrific dryer for wet clothes, since one couldn’t stand to sit outside unless it was in or under water. We enjoyed the pool facilities a couple of times; I could get from one end to the other in three and a half laps. When we sat to dry off, it was almost always under an umbrella. We met an interesting couple from Hawaii (I couldn’t understand why they would come here!). He was originally from New Jersey and had joined the merchant marines and traveled all over the world. In Hawaii, he had met his future wife. They had returned stateside to visit some of his family.

Oh, there is a small fridge in the room, which comes in quite handy for water and other liquids. They have a cute little website here; though they don’t mention rates, it’s $129/night on the weekends, and for weekdays it’s $69 and that is strictly off season.

El Rancho Motel
Key West, Florida, 33040

El Meson de Pepe

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Ishtar on July 22, 2004

This restaurant sits right in front of Mallory Square, and has some history to it. We were lucky to get a table outside, where we could hear the live music, watch the passers-by, and enjoy the roosters scurrying around to get crumbs. We were also immediately across from the Memorial Sculpture Garden which commemorates people who had influenced the development of Key West or were just famous enough to be there. Lamentably, the heads of the statues serve as perches for the chickens and roosters who leave unsavory souvenirs behind.

The service is a bit slow at Meson Pepe, but you can enjoy the music while you wait. Or, as I did, the back of the menu has the history of the building and it's worth the five minutes it takes to peruse.

Chuck was intrigued by one of the dishes that was brought out to another table, and immediately wanted one and the same. It was a wonderful mix of fried white cheese, chorizo, picadillo, beans and corn at the bottom of a pile of warm tortillas. We ordered a fresh salad to accompany this huge meal which neither one of us could finish. Wine for Chuck, lemonade for me and it was not pink, thank heavens.

If you're heading to Key West, here's a coupon for you for dining there. Just click on the link right here and enjoy! For more coupons for foods and activities, you can also go here

Something about the building: it is also referred to as Caya Hueso y Habana (Caya Hueso means Bone Island, and was badly translated by the Americans who thought it meant Key West...ah the lack of culture!). Thousands of Cuban refugees came through this building during the 19th century; oddly enough, I was related to one of them who has since died. After you finish your meal, or before, take a tour inside: there is more restaurant seating, but thanks to the imagination and creativity of one Mario Sanchez, he recreated the essence of Cuban life on the island during that time with barber shops, domino matches, cigar making (he was the son of a cigar maker).

You can purchase souvenirs and cigars in the gift shop.

Some of the typical Cuban dishes served here are:

Ropa Vieja, Churrasco, Picadillo Habanero, Chuletas de cerdo al Key Lime, Frituras de Cobo (conch), Gambas a la plancha, and Tamal Cubano al ajillo. Breath mints de rigueur!

El Meson de Pepe on Mallory Square
410 Wall Street
Key West, Florida, 33040
(305) 295-2620

Hemingway House

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Ishtar on July 22, 2004

The word "cat house" takes on new meaning with this visit. It is unthinkable to come to Key West and not see Hemingway's house. Even if you have not read his novels, it might entice you to do so after your tour.

The tour is optional, and free if you want to be led around. We opted to do our own browsing, as I was anxious to see what lay ahead. We started in the living room, which is filled with pictures of Hemingway with fish (of course, there's furniture) and one particularly impressive oil portrait of him in his macho days. The next area is an anteroom where glassware was kept and opened to the kitchen. This was cordoned off, but you could see that it was large and had all the amenities for the times. The floor tiles have fish motifs.

The hallway is replete with artwork of man and sea scenes, and one is particularly striking with a three dimensional marlin built into the canvas. The living area has some items under glass, and pictures of the real "old man" who is the subject of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea. He lived to be over 100 or so. We also learn a bit more about the second and third wife, and yes, there was a fourth. It seemed that every time Hemingway moved from one country to another, he remarried.

I was greeted upstairs by one of the famous six-toed cats. They are totally uninterested in the visitors, as it has become routine for them.

The bedroom is sumptuous and has access to the veranda that surrounds the upper level. Green shutters adorn the windows and doors. There is another room with a fireplace with photos of the family. We see some of his children, but nary a word about any of his granddaughters. Across the way is a wrought iron staircase, which leads to his study where he did his work. The old typewriter catches the eye immediately, as do the stuffed deer heads on two of the walls. Books line the shelves, but the area, here again is sealed off though you can a fairly good look at its contents. His mantra was to write between 400 and 800 words a day, otherwise, he would consider the day wasted

. You can really get lost on the grounds; Chuck and I took separate paths and I was conducting a study of the plants and came upon a small bridge which spanned a rill that was algae ridden. It is there that I encountered my two lizard friends with which I had a staring contest. I continued walking through the various paths and thought that this could be Cuba recreated here for Ernest. Trees provide the very necessary shade and are surrounded by various species of flora. The house is the only one on the island with a pool and a basement. The elephant statues positioned by the pool look anachronistic.

Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
907 Whitehead Street
Key West, Florida, 33040
(305) 294-1136

"Doing" Duval Street

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Ishtar on November 27, 2004

Duval Street is synonymous with Key West in a way, since anything of major interest is either on it, or near it. As you head toward the water, the concentration of people per square foot swells. Proportionately, the aroma of food gets stronger! Upscale shops, bars galore, and restaurants of sufficient variety if you are staying a week or so, though the dominant theme is Cuban.

Duval runs about 15 long city blocks; as soon as we turned the corner, I immediately knew it was going to be fabulous. My mind was conjuring up images of downtown Sausalito, the French Quarter in New Orleans, a bit of Old San Juan, and though I had never seen it, Cuba. Hordes of people were out and about, strolling, licking ice cream cones, slurping mocha lattés, or trying to hold on to their children. We opted for a northerly direction. We had heard that live concerts take place every evening at 7:00PM at Mallory Square, so we took a right at Fleming Street and happened on a sale event at Express. Who could resist? Other than the candy kitchen, nothing really held my interest until we reached Eaton Street. No less than 3 jewelry stores in 1½ blocks.. But here was Fat Tuesday’s claiming to be "direct from New Orleans", with drinks to match. Daiquiri lovers, please go to this page to get $1.00 coupon for your next daiquiri there. By the way, you will also find the Hard Rock Café on this block. .

From Caroline to Green Street, it’s practically all eateries, with names like Papa’s Restaurant Lilly’s Seafood Buffet and Irish Kevins, whose motto is "I came, I drank, I don’t remember". By that time, we had already missed the concert, and we were getting hunger pangs. Across the street, we spotted the Ochi Café and ventured in. It’s a charming, plein air setting, with no room to spare as the tables are close together. Hotel on the premises, too. The service was great, and the food well prepared. Romantic Italian music filled the area, which was an unexpected pleasure. Tried to take some photos, but it was too dark.

We returned to Duval Street several times; there were some art galleries that were a must; one in particular had an unbelievable sale on masks, and a variety of suspended luminaria which created a very festive display. The shop is aptly called Earth Bound Trading Paradise, and you’ll find it between Eaton and Fleming Streets. There’s a Gay and Lesbian Center right next to the First National Bank, and the gay community here is alive and well.

Duval Street

Key West, Florida

The Round Trip

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Ishtar on August 3, 2004

One of the most exciting parts of this trip was getting to Key West. If you’re going to try to find the shortest and most expeditious way of getting there, I think you’ll miss the fun and the stops. I love to stop along the way and discover something delightful. And there were plenty of delights. As I had indicated earlier, when we set out that morning, we were not thinking Key West. However, by the time you hit Key Largo, and stop at the Tourist Center and look at the incredible job they’ve done with information, brochures, and lodging and recreation ideas, you are going to push further.

On the way down, we didn’t do much exploration at Key Largo aside from remembering Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and that they have the replica (or the original??) of the African Queen which we saw on the way back. And of course, there was that song about Key Largo…The amount of construction going on is simply astounding. I hope that they will be able to fill all of these new apartments and condos that are being built

.Interestingly, there are many more "keys" that one learns about on the road down. If you were uninitiated, as I was, it was fantastic to be able to know that there were more keys than just Largo and West. I prided myself in knowing that there was one called Islamorada. Anything beyond that was unimportant. Then it becomes clear when you look at a dedicated map of the area that there are literally hundreds of these little isles, and that the route that connects all of them pays tribute to the inhabited ones. One name in particular stuck with me, and it was " Bahia Honda" and I wondered if it had anything to do with the vehicle…but then again, how could it? Does anyone really stop at "Tavernier"? What about "Marathon"? Many people spill over into "Boca Chica" when there’s no room in Key West; we met a couple with their children one of the beaches who had rented an entire house in Boca Chica, and said it was preferable to stay there and drive into the Key West madness when they felt the need to go to a bar, or shopping. There is a marine sanctuary and a coral reef state park at opposing ends of the chain. I think we got lost in that state park on the way back, and I loved it. I kept searching the grassy fields for alligators on the loose, but they must have known, so they hid.

What is most impressive is what remains of the Flagler Bridge (see photos). If you know a little bit of Florida’s history, then you’ll know that Flagler is one of its honorees. You can tour his house in West Palm Beach, and it’s quite luxurious. He was a railroad magnate and was very involved with opening routes and facilitating transport in Florida. He undertook the building of the oversea train trestle in 1910, subsequently destroyed in 1935 by a hurricane. Shortly thereafter, the US Government got involved and built the Seven Mile Bridge (positively amazing!!!) and extended US Route 1 to run all the way down to Key West. The first mainland stopping point is Florida City, which used to serve as a checkpoint for illegal immigrants and such; there were protests and complaints that this procedure was hurting tourism in the Keys, and it is at that time that Key West supposedly seceded from the US, and declared itself an independent "Conch Republic". You will see signs to that effect everywhere when you reach Key West.

There are lots of gift shops on the way down, and you may want to save some time to visit; the one that I discovered was in Islamorada, Islamorada Hammocks, was well worth the time spent. They have a tremendous selection of drum art (and other island goodies) at significantly lower prices than Key West or Miami Beach for that matter. We also had lunch in a great little restaurant, whose owner came from Hawaii. There we met a man who had retired down here from North Carolina, and was the produce vendor to the restaurant. He talked a blue streak and it was impossible to ignore him.

One of the highlights was our unplanned stop at Veteran’s Beach where the water revealed a most striking characteristic: though very transparent and shallow, there appeared to be a path unfettered by algae that winded itself in a non-descript form, and it was just too far in for me to see where it ended. Despite the warning against the dangerous Portuguese man o’ war, which was posted quite clearly at the parking area, I couldn’t resist throwing myself in with total abandon. In fact, the water was so clear, that I had lost the car key during my antics, and of course, this put Chuck in total panic. We returned to the water, following the path, and there was the key, totally visible from 5’4" above!!!

Some wealthy folks inhabit these parts, you know. On our way back, we did turn off at Key Largo and went past a huge marina with yachts that would make you cry. There was ongoing construction, of course, but we went to look at some of the inhabited real estate, part of which was waterfront property and the other faced a lagoon. Many of them looked unoccupied, and I imagined they must have been northeast just to escape the torrid heat. What was also quite eerie was driving down a strip of land and being completely surrounded by water on both sides: this becomes all the more dramatic on the 7 Mile Bridge. It’s as if you’ve reached the end of the world, and in a way, you are reaching the southernmost point on the US East Coast. It had us thinking about Cuba a lot.

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