Exploring Key West’s wildlife and wild life

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Glenda C. Booth

Key West visitors can enjoy glorious sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico, this one viewed from the southernmost point in the keys. A daily sunset party in Mallory Square includes acrobats, magicians and other performers.
© Joe Bilous

A mother hen and her three chicks were hell-bent on crossing the street, so I stepped out and stopped the traffic on the main drag that slices down the middle of Key West, Fla. Roosters crowed nearby.

No one seemed to notice. Chickens and roosters in the middle of town? Key West marches to its own drum.

Chickens, roosters, six-toed cats, owl butterflies, conches, frigatebirds, and sooty terns. There’s definitely wildlife, at these southernmost points of the U.S.

But in Key West, the most salient feature is the wild life. Quirky, freewheeling, irreverent Key West, where U.S. 1 ends and begins, “is the greatest of all the end-of-the-road towns,” wrote the late Charles Kuralt in his 1995 book, America.

“This assures its lack of decorum,” Kuralt wrote. “The island is full of dreamers, drifters and dropouts, spongers and idlers and barflies, writers and fishermen, islanders from the Caribbean and gays from the big cities, painters and pensioners, treasure hunters, real estate speculators, smugglers, runaways, old Conchs and young lovers.”

Diversions galore

On this tropical island of coral rock 1.5 miles wide and four miles long, also known as “Key Weird,” bars buzz at 11 a.m., t-shirts broadcast brash messages, and “Margaritaville” blasts out of storefronts.

A dessert restaurant, Better Than Sex, promises “the most decadent sweet dining experience,” offering Tongue Bath Truffle and Kinky Key West Cream Pie.

Over the years, the town’s laid-back, bohemian persona lured notables like Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and John James Audubon, plus pirates, shipwreck salvagers, Cuban refugees and more. Cuba is 90 miles away; Miami, 150.

Even the town’s above-ground cemetery, built in 1847 at the island’s highest point (18 feet), has its quirky side. One headstone says, “I told you I was sick.” Another, “Now I know where he is sleeping at night.”

Strolling the streets is a favorite pastime. At all hours, there’s a parade of eccentrics — from the well off to the struggling, including hippies, oddballs, wayward youth and vacationers. 

On the “Duval crawl,” the 15-block asphalt ribbon between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, there are 66 bars, including Ernest Hemingway’s hangout, Sloppy Joe’s.

Also known as Key West’s Bourbon Street, Duval is the route traveled by zombie parades, naked bike races, and the biggest blowout of all, October’s Fantasy Fest. This year’s theme is “Political Voodoo and Ballot Box Barbarians.”

At the daily sunset street party in Mallory Square, aspiring acrobats, magicians, buskers and fire jugglers perform for free. Key Westers brag that the morning sun rises like a fireball over the ocean and melts into the ocean at twilight.

Hemingway and Truman homes

This Key West home, where Ernest Hemingway wrote such books as A Farewell to Arms in the 1930s, is now a museum that features his typewriter and other mementos, along with numerous descendents of the writer’s six-toed cats.
© wizdata/Shutterstock

Beyond the ubiquitous hawkers of tacky souvenirs and garish T-shirts, Key West has some small-town charm and intriguing nuggets, including 3,000 historic structures. Many houses combine classical New England with Bahamian features like wraparound porches.

Victorian and pre-Victorian homes have elaborate lattice work. The second floor porch of the “eyebrow houses” covers windows to keep houses cool.

The steamy island environment inspired Ernest Hemingway in the 1930s to pen novels like A Farewell to Arms and Death in the Afternoon. At what’s today called the Hemingway House, “the spirit moved him,” tour guides maintain.

The two-story, Spanish colonial home and carriage house-studio featuring his Royal typewriter are preserved a la Papa. Descendants of his six-toed cats meander through the gardens.

The lighthouse across the street, built in 1846, perhaps helped  “befuddled” Ernest find his way home from Sloppy Joe’s. It offers great views at the top of its 88 steps.

Another famous home is the Little White House, where President Harry Truman and wife Bess escaped from the Washington White House — a mansion the president called “the big white jail.”

On a 45-minute tour of this Bahamian-style home, guides explain that 85 to 90 percent of the furniture is authentic, such as the fold-up poker table Bess commissioned so she could disguise Harry’s favorite amusement.

Truman, visitors learn, was dubbed the “uncommon common man.” Reporters called him, “Truman, the human.” Six presidents have stayed there.

A respite from the town’s frenzy is the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens, built between 1846 and 1859. Today it showcases 28 first-edition, hand-colored lithographs and engravings of 22 birds, exquisitely done by John James Audubon. Examples: roseate spoonbill, sooty tern, and brown pelican.

Another de-stressor is the Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. Around 60 butterfly species from around the world flutter among a garden of flowering plants. They are captive bred in the tropics on their native host plants, not collected from the wild.

You might see the world’s largest — the owl butterfly, with an eleven-inch wingspan — and what looks like an eight-winged butterfly. It’s actually a breeding pair, coupling.

Elsewhere on Key West, opportunities abound to sunbathe, swim, snorkel, sail, fish, golf, or simply do nothing.

While seafood — fish, conch, crab, shrimp, lobster — is prominent on menus, eating in Key West is a diverse fusion of styles and tastes. Many delight in the Cuban dishes, like roast pork, black beans and rice, arroz con pollo, and boliche, a beef-sausage dish.

Tropical fruits like mangos, papayas and coconuts are easy to come by. Serious foodies stress that true Key lime pie uses only Key limes, Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk, and a pastry crust, not graham cracker. Oh, and it is yellow; never green.

While enjoying patio dining, you might find chickens or roosters pecking around your feet. It’s all part of Key West’s egg-centric charm.

For a full range of lodging, dining and activities information, including coming events, visit www.fla-keys.com. (Flakey, get it?)

You can fly directly to Key West, or fly to Miami and then drive or take the Keys Shuttle, Keys Express Shuttle, Key West bus, or Greyhound bus. Currently, the lowest round-trip fare from BWI to Key West is $600 on Delta in mid-March. However, it’s $316 on Delta to Miami.