Dec 9, 2018

Cruising through Key West

I’d be lying if I said we booked our cruise last month aboard Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas for any other reason than the day and a half it spent docked in Havana, Cuba.  After all, until recently Havana had been effectively off limits to most Americans for so long, it’s still a little hard to fathom that we can now travel there (with a “valid reason,” of course).

That said, one of my favorite things about the cruise was that it finally allowed me to show Punky a little slice of Key West, which was also on the itinerary.  I had been to the Conch Republic before, but it had been more than 15 years ago, so I was eager to get reacquainted with some of my favorite places on the island, too.  We only had roughly eight hours to explore, but I think we made the most of it. 

The boat docked just off Mallory Square, the perfect jumping off point, so to speak, for a long crawl into old Key West and back.  Once we were off the boat, it took almost no time for us to be greeted by some of the more colorful locals.  Most Key West residents live on what they call island time, but the chickens must be an exception.   

We started our crawl by strolling past nearby tourist attractions, such as the Key West Shipwreck Museum, and passing through whatever shops surrounding Mallory Square were open at the time, such as the Sponge Market (yes, they really sold re-purposed sea sponges).  I was somewhat surprised to see how few places were open early given the large amount of cruise traffic ready to spend money. 

One of the more pleasantly surprising discoveries was the Key West Historical Sculpture Garden, which was very close to the aforementioned Sponge Market.  The garden features 36 busts of some well-known and quite a few lesser-known Key West residents who made significant contributions toward shaping the history of the area.  Naturally, you’d expect to find Ernest Hemingway on display …

… but, frankly, the busts of lesser-known figures, such as Lena Johnson, and the stories about the people they represent, were often more interesting.  Plus, Punky really liked her hat. 

With a new appetite for Key West history, I suggested we head toward the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, which was also conveniently close to our predetermined brunch spot at Blue Heaven.  We then picked up the pace with a brisk walk down Whitehead Street, passing Mile Marker 0 for U.S. Highway 1 along the way. 

But even at 10 a.m. on a November morning, the humidity and sun will eventually slow you down.  Fortunately, the Bahama Village Market and, more particularly, the Blue Macaw open air bar past the sign, caught our eye as a perfect place for a pit stop. 

The make-your-own Bloody Mary bar sealed the deal. 

Once refreshed, we finished our walk to the Hemingway Home and Museum.  Punky was reluctant at first to take a full-on guided tour, but I think she was ultimately very happy with the outcome.  Our guide was very engaging and lively. 

Plus, he knew the name and lineage of every six-toed cat at the residence.

A penny for your thoughts, Ernest.
One of the more memorable sites on the tour is the pool Hemingway’s wife, Pauline, had built while Ernest was reporting on the Spanish Civil War.  But even more interesting is the story behind the penny embedded in the cement at the north end of the pool.  Let’s just say Papa wasn’t too happy to discover the pool when he got home.

And being a writer – OK, more like a commoner who writes – it was especially rewarding to see Hemingway’s office where some of his most famous works were created. 

After the tour, we made the short walk to Blue Heaven, which is famous for its outdoor dining among the chickens and live music with every meal.  It also has a Hemingway connection, as according to legend he would occasionally referee boxing matches here.  It’s a true Key West experience; however, Punky decided against the hour-long wait for al fresco seating, so we opted for two immediately available seats at the bar inside.  

It seemed like the right time for a second Bloody Mary (and a deliciously prepared one, by the way) …

… to go with my choice of lobster benedict.  I was initially worried about the price tag, but frankly it was worth every penny.  The portions of lobster pieces were generous to say the least and about as succulent as any I’ve ever had.   

For Punky, the key lime pie was the primary reason for choosing Blue Heaven in the first place. And it did not disappoint.  The creamy, cheesecake texture along with the sweet-and-tart key lime taste of the pie itself was outstanding.  But the meringue was, by her account, heavenly.  

With our appetites satisfied for a short while, we began to circle back up Whitehead Street, with a stop at one of my favorite bars in Key West, the Green Parrot Bar, for a couple of rum and cokes for me and a couple of margaritas for Punky.  I’ve always thought that if I ever lived in Key West, this t would be my “Cheers.”  I’ll explain why in a future blog post. 

Post-Green Parrot, and after a couple of purchases at their adjacent souvenir shop, we walked up a block on Southard to begin the Duval Street crawl back toward the docks.  All the tourist traps were open by now, and business was bustling. 

And by the time we reached the world famous Sloppy Joe’s bar (another favorite of Hemingway’s) at the corner of Duval and Greene, we were shopped out and ready for more food and drink.  And, as it turns out, live entertainment in the form of regular performer Brian Roberts.  I have to say I was pretty impressed with his solo acoustic act.  The stage at the back of Sloppy Joe’s is fairly large, and for a solo performer to be engaging, entertaining and command a presence among a large crowd of hungry tourists is not an easy task.  We were extremely lucky to get a seat near the stage at the height of the lunch crowd …

… as this view of much of the dining area from our seat would seem to indicate.

Contrary to popular belief, I did not get a free bowl of soup with this hat.
In addition to the music to keep us entertained, we bid our time waiting for lunch with a signature Sloppy Joe’s cocktail for each of us.  Punky ordered the Key Lime Drink, which she later declared to be her favorite drink of the day, and I had the Sloppy Mojito.  And as far as mojitos go, this one certainly put a smile on my face (which is not an easy thing to do).    

Now that's a lot of conch!!
Things got even better when our conch fritters arrived, served with an indescribably good key lime mustard dipping sauce.  If you’ve never had a conch fritter, think over-sized hush puppy with bits of mild but tasty mollusk in every bite.  The combination of sweet and tart flavors from the sauce were the perfect companion.    

After we had once again stuffed ourselves silly, we wobbled down Green Street for less than a block to enjoy a much more low-key atmosphere (at least in the daytime) at Captain Tony’s Saloon.  I love dive bars with history, and this one is loaded with it.  I’ll go into greater detail with another blog post devoted to Captain Tony’s in the near future.

I will say Captain Tony’s is a great spot for people watching and absorbing all the oddities that make Key West what it is.  For instance, we just took this picture not because we went to Amigos, but because Punky got a kick out of the fact that Zombie was running for mayor.  Seems entirely possible in this town.

After we each had a signature pirate’s punch at Captain Tony’s, it became apparent we would be best served from this point forward going back to our cruise ship.  But before we did, we found one more photo opportunity.  While we did not have enough time in the day to go to Key West’s more famous Southernmost Point in the continental United States, we made up for it by discovering Selfiemost Point at Sunset Pier.

Just doing as told …

We had sought to make the most of the eight hours we had in Key West, and at the end of the day I would have to say mission accomplished.  Even more importantly, Punky was sold on Key West as a future vacation destination.  I’m pretty sure it won’t be another 15 years before we return, and we will definitely stay much longer when we do.

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