What’s not to enjoy about the Florida keys? The weather and the atmosphere always make this a great place to visit. The more painful part is the drive down from Miami. It can take almost 2 hours to drive the first 30 miles. But after that, the traffic often starts to lighten and become almost delightful–especially if you have a convertible car
Our traditional stop en route to Key West is lunch at Islamorada Fish Company. This company, located on the harbor, sells fresh fish, and has an open-air, thatch-covered restaurant built on a dock overlooking the water. The wrap-around deck also attracts more than its fair share of giant tarpon fish which the company feeds with bloodlines from freshly caught fish, and diners can feed with small shrimp bought from the store. Our lunch consisted of two very good dishes: grouper sandwich and giant, perfectly cooked fried oysters. The stone crab claws (the primary reason for our stop), were less sweet than those at Joe’s in Miami and the mayo/mustard sauce much less tasty. But it is still a good stop.
Let’s face it. Key West is a party town. Although it is officially part of the United States, that’s just an accident of history. That of being part of Florida, an accident of politics. Key West is actually a country unto itself. Residents call it the Conch Republic. It has a character all its own with nice gingerbread houses, former government buildings such as Harry Truman’s Little White House (now a museum,) and the U.S. Customs House. And then there’s Duval Street (think a mini Bourbon Street without the street drinking, but with lots of drinking in bars).
And since Key West is an island, it makes sense that it would operate on Island Time. But in Key West time, the visitor’s day begins at sunset when the partying begins.
A Typical Key West Day
Mallory Dock Sunset Celebration
The partying beings with the Sunset Celebration: when the sun looks like it is thinking about setting and ends when people slowly begin to realize that the sun will not return for another 12 hours. Fueled by alcohol and enthusiasm, people gather to watch buskers perform for tips while wait for the sky to light up with a beautiful sunset.
Duval Street Crawl
Sometime after sunset, the daily migration to the Duval Street bars begins. Each bar tries to attract this herd with its own lure. Sometimes its cheap or X number of drinks for every one you buy, sometimes half-price snacks, sometime the music. But whatever you choose, the idea is to experience every bar until you have to crawl home.
We discovered an amazing bar, Irish Kevin’s where a non-stop entertainer engages the audience from before they walk in the door, through the entire evening with classic songs, mildly off-color humor, chugging contests, and audience group singing contests that pit one packed room against the other. We cannot comprehend how one person can remain “on” for so long, without even seeming to consider taking a break. While we greatly enjoyed our time, we weren’t as enthralled by subsequent nights’ MCs.
From about 3:00 AM to 10:00 AM, those who were partying all night take time to recharge and get ready for work.
Work does not mean going to work. For tourists, work means spending from about 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM via any of a wide range of professions including sunbathing, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, parasailing, fishing or, for the very best, drinking.
Key West Has More Than Partying
We don’t want to give one the impression that drinking and partying are the only thing one does in Key West. Not quite true. The city has “industry” beyond alcohol.
Shopping For Food and Souvenirs
Key West has multiple micro-cigar factories and stores, a number of key lime shops and pie bakeries, and its own pepper sauce company (even though peppers are not grown in the Keys). And, at least according to a sign on a building, is in the process of buildings its own rum distillery. This being said, however, the island’s largest industry (beyond bars, restaurants and hotels) is almost certainly T-shirts. Every other storefront offers them and many “make their own” by ironing any of multiple decals on a shirt of the buyer’s choice.
Annual Christmas Lighted Boat Parade
Key West marks the beginning of the holiday season in early December when boat owners decorate their vessels with elaborate and creative holiday lights and decorations and sail around the Key West Harbor and surrounding areas.
Annual Christmas Bike Parade
Key West has a similar event on the land when participants ride their bikes through the streets. The parade is so long as to suggest that every island resident, plus a number of tourists joined in on the fun. Bikes and/or riders wear reindeer antlers, Santa suits and hats, and some hauled bike trailers that served as mini-floats. And after the parade, participants board the Conch Train for a reprisal of their route.
Key West’s Shipwreck Treasures Museum
Back in the old days, Key West’s economy was based largely on sponging—not as in begging tourists for money, but as in diving for and harvesting sea sponges and other items (such as Conch Shells) that did not require refrigeration.
By the mid-1700s however, entrepreneurs discovered a new means of earning money from the sea—salvaging. By the early 19th century, more than 100 ships per day passed by the treacherous shoals. Given ships’ limited power options and navigation capabilities and the slow response to steering, any mistake or slow reaction (especially at night)—not to speak of an unanticipated storm or hurricane—could result in a ship going aground. The average was one ship per week. In 1920, 18 Spanish Galleons were lost in one storm alone. All these ships carried cargo and some, especially the Spanish Galleons, often carried huge quantities of gold and silver.
People discovered there was money to be made from these wrecks. In some cases, big money. The SS Issac lberton, for example, foundered 1n 1856 with a cargo of Carrera Marble valued at $256,000 in 1856 dollars. The 1857 SS Central America went down with $2 million in gold (about $125 million in today’s dollars). Meanwhile, Galleons, such as the Atocha, which sank way back in 1682, carried even richer cargoes. True, not all ships carried gold, silver, or marble. Many carried rather pedestrian cargoes such as silk, spices, and china from the Far East, or just shoes, dresses, clothes and so forth from U.S. ports.
But regardless of the cargo, there was big money in salvaging. By the 1820s, virtually every seaworthy schooner in the city was devoted to salvaging and those who didn’t actively salvage built and ran warehouses to store salvaged goods, run auctions, or buy salvaged goods in bulk and sell them at retail prices.
Salvage ships rushed to any spot a wreck was thought to be or even stationed watchmen at strategic spots in anticipation of mishaps. Once a wreck was spotted, salvagers rushed to be the first to the site: The reason, the one who arrived first was named the Wreck Master. They could determine if they could handle the wreck alone or, if they needed help, who they would retain the findings, and how the proceeds would be divided.
Once a wreck was being salvaged, warehouse operators and merchants rushed to be the first at the dock to meet the salvage ship at the dock in hope of scoring a storage contract or buying good on the cheap. Many, including Asa Tiff, after whose salvage warehouse the museum is modeled, built tall watchtowers so they could spot wrecking ships approaching port. Customers also got into the act, with weekly salvaged goods auctions becoming major social events.
The salvage business was large and lucrative. By mid-century, Key West had the highest per capita income in the country and more than two-thirds of Florida’s entire export income came from salvaging.
But was this type of pillaging even legal? Absolutely! First, the law of the sea specifically permits it. Second, governments encouraged it. Not only did salvaging bring money into government coffers, it also saved lives. Wreckers, after all, were often the first to discover and reach foundering ships and they were required to bring all crew members and passengers to safety before any salvage works were done. Key West had a special Federal Salvage Court and staffed by a judge who literally wrote the book on maritime salvaged law. Wreckers were typically awarded between 25 percent and 50 percent of the value of the cargo, depending on the difficulty and danger of the recovery job.
Although the salvage industry gradually died out after the invention of the steamship and modern navigation equipment, there are still wrecks and still a need to salvage their cargos. True, the cargo ships and Spanish Galleons of yesterday have generally been replaced by yachts and supertankers. But as long as there’s a need, there will always be adventure seekers willing to do the job.
And what of all those gold- and silver-laden Galleons that went down without a trace? The real adventurers of the salvaging trade are still looking for, and occasionally finding them. The aforementioned SS South America, for example, was discovered and salvaged in 1987 and a large silver bar and pieces of eight from the ship are displayed at the museum. Meanwhile, the Atocha, the biggest, richest wreck of all was salvaged by adventurer and salvager Mel Fisher in 1985. Carrying more than 40 tons of gold and silver (not to speak of precious jewels, it yielded $450 million in both historical and monetary treasure. Some of these artifacts are on display at the Mel Fisher Museum, which is only about a block from the Shipwreck Treasures Museum.