Laid-back living in eclectic Key West, Fla.

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Victor Block
A sightseeing train chugs past Sloppy Joe’s Bar, where Ernest Hemmingway was a regular patron when he lived in Key West from 1931 to 1942.
Photo by Victor Block

Even after several days luxuriating in the sun that bathes Key West in its glow, the essence of the Florida destination eluded me. I had immersed myself in the tiny island’s history, wandered narrow streets lined by gingerbread-trimmed houses, and taken in a long list of intriguing sights.

The missing ingredient fell into place when I spotted several elderly men playing bocce. I asked a bystander if lawn bowling is popular because many people of Italian descent live in Key West.

Chuckling, she replied, “No, it’s popular because it’s a game you can play with one hand while you hold a drink in the other.”

That fun-filled outlook on life summed it up. More than the subtropical setting, surpassing its eclectic gathering of historic and other sites, Key West is an attitude. Life there is laid back, and people need little excuse to party.

Even the sunset provides one. Each evening, a crush of people congregates at Mallory Square as the sun dips toward the horizon beyond the Gulf of Mexico. Jugglers, musicians and other entertainers compete for an audience — and tips.

Many spectators clutch a plastic take-out cup containing a beverage purchased at a nearby bar. After the sun disappears, usually to the sound of applause, the throng disperses and flows toward the watering holes and restaurants that line nearby Duval Street.

Hemingway drank (and wrote) here

A number of both locals and visitors head for Sloppy Joe’s Bar and Captain Tony’s, both of which claim, with some justification, that Ernest Hemingway was a regular patron when he lived in Key West.

After being operated as an illegal speakeasy by a local named Joe Russell, Sloppy Joe’s came out of the shadows on December 5, 1933, the day Prohibition was repealed.

The name for the rowdy saloon was suggested by Hemingway, who had frequented a similarly named bar in Cuba, where melting ice used to preserve seafood kept the floor wet and, yes, “sloppy.”

In 1937, Joe Russell refused to pay what he viewed as an unreasonable rent increase, from $3 to $4 a week, and he leased an empty building nearby. One evening in May, his customers carried their drinks and all of the tavern’s furnishings down the street to the new location, and partying continued without missing a beat, or in this case a swallow.

Later, what had been Sloppy Joe’s was purchased by Tony Tarracino, a charter boat captain, who renamed it Captain Tony's Saloon.

Hemingway, by far Key West’s most famous resident, lived there from 1931 to 1942. Those were his most productive years, during which he wrote some of his best-known classics, including A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Hemingway worked hard during the mornings, writing in his small studio on the second floor of a converted carriage house overlooking an equally minuscule swimming pool.

He also played hard, descending around lunch time to spend the rest of the day and evening swimming, fishing and drinking with a coterie of friends that ranged from fellow literary giants to bar owners and commercial fishermen.

The Spanish Colonial-style home where Hemingway lived with Pauline, his second of four wives, operates today as a museum. Of special interest is his studio, which remains exactly as he left it. An ancient manual typewriter stands on the desk, and stuffed heads of animals the author shot on safari adorn the walls.

Today’s residents are some four dozen cats, many of them six-toed — descendants of the writer’s beloved “Snowball.”

President Harry Truman stayed at this house, dubbed the Little White House, on his frequent visits to Key West. Many later presidents followed suit. The house now offers guided tours to the public.
Photo by Victor Block

Other Key West luminaries

Hemingway wasn’t the only famous author to be attracted by Key West’s charms. Robert Frost came from 1945 to 1960 to escape the New England winters, which some of his poetry describes. John Dos Passes was a drinking buddy of “Papa” Hemingway, and John Hersey and Gore Vidal dropped by for visits.

Tennessee Williams owned a modest bungalow on the island from 1949 until his death in 1983. It’s believed that he wrote the first draft of A Streetcar Named Desire while there, and the movie version of his Academy Award-winning play, The Rose Tattoo, was filmed on Key West in 1956.

Another famous part-time resident was President Harry Truman, who made 11 trips to what became known as the “Little White House.” That modest, two-story wooden structure was built by the U.S. Navy in 1890 to serve as home for the commander and paymaster of a base on the site.

Among other notables who temporarily lived in or visited the house were Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Thomas Edison lived there while conducting experiments and developing weapons for the Navy during World War I.

Guided tours and exhibits at a small museum introduce visitors to the famous people who stayed in the house. They also provide personal tidbits about President Truman that to me were more interesting than any facts and figures.

I learned (and like) that Harry enjoyed playing spirited games of poker with his guests, and taking part in “loud shirt” contests with White House staff members.

Another humanizing touch about the 33rd president was his insistence that he down an early morning “shot of bourbon followed by a large glass of fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice” on the advice of his doctor.

Forts and shipwreck treasures

Although it has been more decades than I care to remember since I wore the uniform of the Army, I found two small but interesting forts to be worth a visit.

Construction of Fort Zachary Taylor was begun in 1845. Even though Florida seceded from the Union during the Civil War, the presence of the fort, which Yankee troops used as a base from which to blockade Confederate shipping, kept Key West on the side of the North.

The fort also saw action during the Spanish-American War. The state park that surrounds the building includes one of the better beaches on Key West, and offers swimming, swim-out snorkeling, fishing and wooded nature trails.

Federal forces began construction of the East Martello tower in 1862, but the work was never completed. The eight-foot-thick walls today house an eclectic hodge-podge of artifacts that trace many aspects of the history of Key West and the other Florida Keys.

There are exhibits on early industries, including fishing, shrimping, sea sponge harvesting and cigar making. A small section devoted to Cuban immigration since Fidel Castro came to power includes a rickety raft used by people to escape to the United States, and the tragic story that their effort failed and they were never found.

Another intriguing aspect of Key West’s history is depicted in two other collections. The Shipwreck Treasures Museum tells the intriguing story of Key West “wreckers” with a combination of exhibits, audio-visual displays and a live presentation.

Wrecking and salvage — rescuing passengers, then recovering the cargo of ships that sunk following collisions with treacherous offshore reefs — was the foundation of Key West’s economy throughout the 19th century. For a time, that enterprise made the tiny island the richest city per capita in the United States.

Storytellers in period costumes relate this historical tidbit, interspersing fascinating facts with humor that’s as corny as it is colorful. As part of his patter, one guide sought to convince me that I would have made a good diver, until I learned they had to hold their breath under water for up to five minutes.

The Mel Fisher Treasure Museum recounts the story of that intrepid fortune hunter. He spent 16 years seeking the wreck of Spanish galleons that sank in 1622 off the coast of Key West during a ferocious hurricane.

The $450 million treasure he ultimately found included more than 40 tons of gold and silver as well as emeralds, Chinese porcelain and other precious artifacts. To me, the story of Mel Fisher’s search for the valuable cache is as fascinating as the exhibits themselves.

A little-known gem that is overlooked by too many visitors to Key West is Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden. “Secret” definitely is the operative word. Tucked away at the end of a tiny lane, it’s a quiet oasis of lush tropical greenery only steps from the rushed, raucous action along Duval Street.

Quiet, that is, except for the loud squawking — and impressive talking — of more than two dozen parrots. Conceding that she’s “passionate about parrots,” Nancy knows the likes (ham with grits, sweet potatoes, peanut butter), dislikes (people food, quality nutrition) and idiosyncrasies (baths, quiet days) of each bird that shares the lovely setting. The one acre refuge is perfect for those seeking a temporary respite from the sometimes frantic frivolity elsewhere on Key West.

If you go

Accommodations in Key West range from hotels and motels to small inns and charming guest houses. Some of them were built as homes for wealthy wreckers, merchants and sea captains, and many have an interesting history.

For example, the Angelina Guest House at 302 Angela Street, built in the 1920s, did duty as a gambling hall and bordello. Now it’s a few-frills property with a small swimming pool surrounded by tropical foliage. Rates begin at $99 including continental breakfast. For more information, call 1-888-303-4480 or log onto www.angelinaguesthouse.com.

If you like cats, as I do, the Andrews Inn may be the perfect place to stay. Because its six rooms share a wall with the Hemingway estate, the famous six-toed residents of that property often drop by for a visit.

Andrews Inn sits in a lush garden setting surrounding a pool. In addition to a bountiful continental breakfast, afternoon “happy hour” combines complimentary beverages and snacks with opportunities to meet and mingle with other guests. Rates begin at $145. For more information, log onto www.andrewsinn.com or call 1-888-263-7393.

When it comes to dining, the choice ranges from the whitest of white tablecloth restaurants to eateries that give new meaning to the word “casual.” Seeking opportunities to mix and mingle with locals, I opted for the latter.

The Blue Heaven, at the corner of Petronia and Thomas Streets, combines a party atmosphere with good food. It once was the site of cock fights and boxing matches that Ernest Hemingway dropped by to referee.

Today’s competitive activity is ping pong, and an informal tournament on Saturday evenings attracts fishing boat captains, crew members and — on a recent night — this travel writer.

In this laid-back setting, the kitchen turns out good food. A Jamaican “jerk” chicken dinner costs $22, a veggie stir fry with chicken $25. Entrees are accompanied by vegetables and outstanding corn bread. For more information, log onto blueheavenkw.com or call (305) 296-8666.

BO’s Fish Wagon at 801 Caroline Street manages to make the Blue Heaven resemble a haute cuisine setting. In what appears from the outside to be more wreck than restaurant, visitors and locals savor fresh seafood at reasonable prices. A grouper sandwich costs $4.75, the signature conch sandwich with French fries or slaw goes for $12.50. For more information, call (305) 294-9272 or log onto bosfishwagon.com.

For general information about Key West, call 1-800-352-5397 or log onto www.fla-keys.com.

AirTran and Delta offer the least expensive roundtrip tickets to Key West in late October. Tickets are $299 from BWI and have one stop.