Florida Keys (26 to 30 January 2024)

Like a string of beads floating on the ocean, the 113 coral cays of the Florida Keys cascade down from the mainland, culminating in the southernmost point of the continental United States.

Until the early 1950s, the largest of the cays, Key Largo, was a sleepy backwater.  In fact, there wasn’t even a town of that name.

But in 1948, the film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall led to a flurry of visitors.  It didn’t matter that apart from a few location-setting scenes, the movie was shot entirely on a Warner Bros sound stage in Hollywood.

Local businessmen on the north of the cay successfully lobbied the post office to change the area name from Rock Harbor to Key Largo, and a tourism industry was born.

This is allegedly the property ‘where Bogie and Bacall stayed during filming’, although that seems unlikely as there’s no evidence they came to Key Largo at all.

Humphrey Bogart didn’t come here to film The African Queen either.  It was shot on location in the Belgian Congo and Uganda in 1950.  The river scenes made use of a 30 foot steam boat originally christened the S/V Livingstone and re-named African Queen after the director spotted her during filming and commissioned her for the movie.

Apart from her title role in the film, she was used to transport cargo, mercenaries and hunting parties on the Ruki River in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1912 until 1968.  In 1970, she was found in a Cairo shipyard.  An American entrepeneur bought her, shipped her to the States and restored her.  She’s now docked in Key Largo, taking tourists on two hour sailing trips around the coast.

Key Largo has largely moved on from the Bogart connection.  It’s a bustling but unremarkable strip of small hotels and rental houses accommodating visitors who come for sailing and fishing trips, kayaking and scuba diving.

It’s a convenient launch point to reach the marine part of the vast Everglades National Park which stretches all the way down from the Florida mainland to south of Key Largo.  We took a boat trip out to the red mangroves.

We idled through to Hemingway’s Cut.  It’s named for Ernest Hemingway, who lived further south in Key West and fished up and down the Keys, although there’s no evidence he specifically came here.

From around the 1860s, hats made from bird feathers, wings and even whole birds, were so popular with wealthy women in the United States and England that colonies of great blue herons and snowy egrets in Florida were being wiped out.

Ghastly!

Agitation by environmentalists eventually led to a ban on hunting birds for feathers in 1918.  Fortunately, both bird populations have rebounded.

We were keen to see the manatees which live in the sea grasses here.  Ironically, considering habitat destruction by mankind is their greatest existential threat, they love to lounge around the private docks of the houses that line the canals.  We saw a couple of mothers with young ones.

Easy to see, hard to photograph.  They break the surface to breathe, but we didn’t get a decent shot, so here’s an underwater photo from Harvard University’s Centre for Animal Law and Policy website taken near here.  Cute!

We had better luck photographing the dolphins.  The dock from which our boat left was behind a small dolphin centre.

As well as a rescue service for injured dolphins (tick), they have an ocean-fed enclosure where visitors pay for ‘dolphin encounters’ with habituated ones.  We’re not in favour of keeping such creatures in captivity or training them to do tricks for reward, so we wouldn’t usually go to a place like this, but when we arrived back at the dock, our boat captain gave us a pass to go in and see the dolphins so we did.

Marvellous.

That night at the dive bar next to our hotel, we listened to a guy with a steel string guitar crooning covers of Jimmy Buffett and the Eagles.  A cocktail with the unlikely name The Grapeful Dead, comprising tequila, gin, vodka, white rum and raspberry liquor seemed like a good idea.  Several of them seemed like an even better idea.

Next morning, not so much.

And as we headed south to Key West nursing a hangover, John said, “Please don’t tell me we’re going all this way just to see some six-toed cats”.

Julie said, “Ok, I won’t tell you ….”

Ernest Hemingway washed up in Key West in 1928 on his way back from Europe with his second wife, Pauline.  They both loved the place so much, her wealthy uncle bought them a house here, which she restored and where they lived from 1931 to 1938.

The marriage broke down and Hemingway de-camped to Cuba with the woman who would become his third wife.  The house reverted to him when Pauline died in 1951, but he never returned and it remained empty.

After his death in 1961, their children sold the house.  The new owners wanted to live there but public interest in the Hemingway connection was so high they capitulated and opened it as a museum in 1964.  And so it remains.

Hemingway had the second floor of the carriage house converted into a studio where he wrote some of his most famous work including To Have and Have Not and the non-fiction Green Hills of Africa, a purportedly true account of his experiences big game hunting in Africa.

Hemingway was a prodigious drinker, usually at a bar called Sloppy Joe’s.  Here’s the original.  Still a bar, still trading on the Hemingway connection.

In 1937, the bar owner was advised by the landlord of a 25% rent increase.  He wanted to leave but the lease prohibited him from removing any of the bar fixtures and fittings.  He hatched a cunning plan.

He secretly rented new premises nearby and waited.  When the lease expired at midnight on 5 May 1937, he galvanised his loyal but very drunk patrons to strip anything and everything from the bar and carry it around the corner to the new location.  He figured that as the lease had expired, he wasn’t in breach.  By the time the landlord found it, the old premises had been picked clean.

And to this day, a bar named Sloppy Joe’s stands on the new site.

And where was Hemingway in all this?  According to local lore, roaring drunk as always,  he tore a china urinal from the wall of the men’s room and took it home, declaring “I’ve pissed so much of my money down this thing, I’m entitled to keep it” or something like that.

The long-suffering Pauline was not happy and wanted to get rid of it.  But as always, Hemingway prevailed and it was placed in the garden where Pauline decorated it with tiles and converted it to a fountain.

As you can see, a handy water bowl for the cats.

Hemingway was fascinated by a six-toed cat named Snowball belonging to a close friend and skipper with whom he regularly went fishing.  The skipper gifted him one of Snowball’s kittens, which his children named Snow White.

It was also a polydactyl, ie a cat with extra toes. Most cats have five toes on their fore paws and four on their hind paws.  Polydactyls have six or seven, and very rarely even up to nine toes per paw.

As Hemingway famously commented “One cat just leads to another”.  One cat became many cats and, as polydactylism is genetically inherited, many of them also had extra toes.

Hemingway named them after his famous friends, apparently because it appealed to his sense of humour to drop into conversation such gems as “I saw Gertrude Stein drinking from the toilet last night”.

The descendants of Snow White, and some ring-ins, still live here.  At the moment there are 62 cats on the grounds.  The kittens live in a nursery out the back modelled on the actual Hemingway house.

The cats have the run of the property and the house.  Look at all those toes!

Unlike humans, they are allowed to pitch up anywhere they please.

They even channel their forebear’s original owner.

Beginning in 2003, the museum fought a nine year legal battle with the Department of Agriculture which asserted that the provisions of the Animal Welfare Act regulating the treatment of big cats in zoos and circuses applied to the museum.

Ultimately the Court of Appeal found the Act does apply, because the cats are used in marketing and the museum sells cat-themed merchandise.   Bizarre.

Not sure what the Act says, but there’s no doubt the cats are the priority here.

When officials ordered a full evacuation of Key West residents ahead of Hurricane Irma in 2017, the manager and ten museum workers refused to go, saying they had to care for the cats.   The house, cats and human attendants all emerged unscathed when it was over.

A PETA inspector once visited incognito and later declared “What I found was a bunch of fat, happy cats”.  Sounds accurate, based on what we saw.

Polydactyl cats aside, Key West is an interesting place.

It was once one of the wealthiest cities in the United States from ‘wrecking’ – salvaging loot from grounded or sinking ships.  In the 19th century, ships wrecked on the Florida Reefs at a rate of one per week and Key West was an officially designated hub for salvage and auction.  Nefarious practices such as fake lights designed to lure ships onto the reefs were not unknown.

Many of the elegant homes built by the wealthy in that era are still here, mansions built for the likes of wrecker William Curry, Florida’s first self-made millionaire.

Harry S Truman liked Key West so much he established his ‘winter White House’ here, spending each November-December and February-March from 1946 t0 1952 in a re-purposed naval officer’s house now named the Harry S Truman Little White House.

Pan American Airways (Pan Am) was born here as a passenger and mail service between the US and Cuba.  In 1927, the first ever commercially operated international flight out of the US departed from Key West bound for Havana.  Pan Am grew to be the largest international air carrier and unofficial flag carrier of the United States until it folded in the 1990s.

With its history of ‘wrecking’ and its halcyon days as a port of entry for illegal rum from Cuba during Prohibition, Key West has always prided itself on being a place of tolerance, free thinking and an ‘anything goes’ mentality.

Marijuana is legal here and the stores are having a lot of fun with their advertising.

Readers old enough to remember Cheech and Chong will smile at this one.

The bottom end of Key West is the southernmost point of the continental United States.

As the marker says, it’s only 90 miles to Cuba.  And the Cuban and Caribbean influence is strong here – in the climate, in the food and in the drinks.

And the roosters which graze freely all over town.  They are descendants of Cuban fighting roosters.  When cock fighting was banned in the US, many of them were released and left to their own devices.  They coupled up with domestic chickens who’d escaped from backyard coops – now also banned – and the result is a thriving community.  They’ve become a symbol of the city.

The sobering side of Key West’s proximity to Cuba is that it’s one of the places refugees head for.  In the forecourt of the maritime museum is the Mariana, a 6.5 metre jerry-rigged vessel made from empty 55 gallon drums and an old truck motor in which 24 Cubans made the perilous journey in 2015.  Of the thousands who attempt the crossing every year, they were some of the lucky ones.  All survived the journey and having made landfall, have some chance of eventual citizenship.

In 1982, the US Border Patrol blockaded the one road entrance to the Florida Keys, requiring everyone passing the checkpoint to show proof of citizenship in order to pass.   It was part of a crackdown on illegal immigrants and drugs.  Traffic backed up for 27 kilometres as officers searched every vehicle entering and leaving the Keys.

Key Westers were outraged at the notion of US citizens being restricted from moving within their own nation.  Mayor Dennis Wardlow declared that if the US wanted to treat the Keys like a foreign country, Key West would secede.  A US Coast Guard vessel in port was pelted with water balloons, conch fritters and stale Cuban bread.

On 23 April 1982, the Mayor declared the Conch Republic, a ‘Sovereign State of Mind’ open to ‘all comers who understand the value of humour, community and a passion to encourage others to behave in a proud and foolish manner’.

For Jimmy Buffett fans, Key West will always be synonymous with Margaritaville.

At 24 years of age, Buffett went to Nashville seeking fame and fortune but they proved elusive.  He cut two albums there but the first sold only 324 copies and the second was never released.  Disheartened, he came to Key West on a busking holiday and liked it so much, he moved here.

Although he later moved to Palm Beach after he cracked the big time, it was during his time in Key West that he honed his distinctive ‘Gulf and western’ music style, which he was fond of calling ‘drunken Caribbean rock and roll’.  Many of the colourful characters in his songs are said to be modelled on people he knew here.

Nowadays, Key West is a far cry from the images of flip flops, beach shirts, misfits, washed up sailors and dissolute drop outs conjured up by Buffett’s music.  Locals and visitors alike look more like retired doctors, lawyers and other well-heeled boomers from Cape Cod escaping the northern cold, but we’d be willing to bet a fair number of them are Parrotheads.

We’d been to the Margaritaville Bar in Nashville and raised a margarita in remembrance of Jimmy B.  But the original is here.

It was easy to see why he found inspiration in Key West.  It’s sunny and warm and still vaguely eccentric, with a relaxed vibe that entices you to kick back knowing, as he so eloquently put it:

There’s booze in the blender
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.

Now if we could just find that lost shaker of salt….

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