I’ve stood on the shore of Michigan’s Walloon Lake where Ernest ("Papa") Hemingway fell in love with all things outdoors; traveled through Italy, where he sustained a war injury and fell in love with his nurse; retraced his steps through Montmartre in Paris; agonized over the bullfights he loved in Spain; and chronicled his love for Sun Valley, where he ended his life. But never have I felt his presence as keenly as I did touring the tranquil Key West home, studio and gardens where — motivated and at peace — he spent his most productive years.
While there, be sure to stop and pet some of the 40 to 50 original polydactyl (six-toed) cats, legendary and living descendants of Papa’s first beloved kitten, Snowball. Check out the charming little stone cemetery wherein lie his cats of every breed with names like Kim Novak, John Wayne, Mr. Betty Davis and Sophia Loren. Very much alive was Rudolf Valentino, with whom we made a brief acquaintance.
About 150 miles from Miami, the drive is a combination of congested, junky and impressive, especially when approaching the Seven Mile Bridge — wild and ultimately breathtaking upon arrival at road’s end, the southernmost point of the continental United States. All of which pretty much describes the town of Key West, a “no shoes, no shirt, no problem” kind of place.
Casa Marina, a Waldorf-Astoria property, is located right on the beach, at the tip of the key, and is the ultimate resort experience in Key West with marvelous restaurants, water sports and service. It's a bit of a walk to Old Town, where all the craziness occurs, but trolleys, cabs, bikes and glass-bottom boats beckon out front.
To immerse yourself in the charm and hullabaloo of Old Town without the hassle, try the private elegance of the Marquesa Hotel and Café. The Pier House, another lodging alternative, gives a local experience with all the amenities and services of a beachfront hotel. Florida’s first millionaire built what is now the Curry Mansion, a charming stay taking you back in time to an era of wicker, antiques and a gentler lifestyle.
Dining in Key West ranges from sidewalk vendors selling mangoes, papayas, lime-grilled pompano and shrimp (pink gold) to fine dining at Louie’s Backyard, our favorite. We lucked into lunch during a tropical downburst, seated on Louie’s porch, with the raindrops rat-a-tat-tatting on the roof and the ocean changing from blues to greens to aquas right in front of our eyes. Don’t miss this gem.
Other dining options include Michaels for Italian; Martin's for excellent food and the best Bloody Mary in town; Kelly’s Caribbean Bar, Grill & Brewery; Hog’s Breath Saloon, just to say you went there; Sloppy Joe’s for, well, you guessed it; and Pepe’s Café, a shack dating back to 1909 where you must order the key lime pie and tart, and scrumptiously creamed and served in a bowl.
There’s so much to do here, but don’t forget that this is an island, so don’t overexert yourself. When you’ve had enough hammock time, stroll down to the Historic Seaport and walk the Harbor Walk. Boat slips are home to snorkel vessels, para-sailing, all kinds of water sports, fishing charters, glass-bottom boats and a ferry that will take you over to Dry Tortugas National Park, where you’ll discover sea life, shipwrecks, migratory birds and historic Fort Jefferson.
Now that’s enough exerting. Time to get back to the real reason people come to these magical islands — to leave your ties, jackets and high heels at home and relax. Yeah, mon, this is island life! Or, as Jimmy Buffett would say, “Changes in latitude, changes in attitude.”