Key West is the last stop in the Florida Keys, a long chain of coral islands that stretch from the southern tip of Florida into the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.
For hundreds of years, Key West has attracted wayward souls and rebel spirits from lawless pirates to Ernest Hemmingway.
Today it's a cosmopolitan, diverse mix of cultures and lifestyles at the southermost point in the U.S.A, living peacefully together under the motto of "One Human Family".
There's an ethos here different from the mainland; more laid back, with a friendly small town feel despite being a major tourist destination just a few hours from Miami.
The historic part of the island, or Old Town, is located at the western end of the island, wiith Duval St. as its main commercial thouroughfare running northwest. During tourist high seasons, the street is crowded from morning until the late hours. I saw people already strolling with giant pina coladas at 9:30 am. In fact, some establishments make it really easy by having bartenders serve drinks along the sidewalk. People come to Key West with one thing in mind: a good time.
The tropical ambiance of Key West is enhanced by the beautiful architecture, some of which dates back centuries. Historic buildings along Duval Street are an energetic range of styles and provide an outstanding mix of nightclubs, boutique stores, souvenir shops, hotels, cafés, and whatever else you can think of.
At the Southern end of Duval Street, South Beach suddenly appears like a tropical vision; there's a small stretch of soft white sand and swaying palm trees with a nice oceanside eatery.
A few minutes west of South Beach, there's a famous geographical marker placed at the Southernmost point in the United States. It's painted in bright colors and attracts tourists like a swarm of bees.They're usually lined up, waiting to have their picture snapped in front of it.
Lush, tropical gardens surround the houses and line the streets of Key West.
For hundreds of years, people have been bringing exotic species of plants, flowers, and palm trees to the island to create their own idea of a tropical paradise.
One of these people was Captain John Huling Geiger, Key West's first harbor pilot. In the 1800's he gathered and planted beautiful vegetation on the property surrounding his home.
When John Audubon visited Key West in 1832, in search of bird life for his portfolio "Birds of America", he was attracted to Geiger's house and gardens. He took cuttings from the gardens and used them in the backgrounds of many of his works.
The Audubon House and Tropical Gardens were established in 1960 within that same 19th-century house. On exhibit are 28 first edition John Audubon works, as well as a wealth of historic furnishings from the period.
The exquisite garden, still blooming with orchids and other tropical plants, is wonderfully maintained by the foundation and considered the finest tropical garden in the Florida Keys.
Ponce de Leon was the first European to visit Key West in 1521. After that, people began arriving from other lands to settle here and call it home.
By 1890, Key West was the largest and wealthiest city in Florida, with a population of almost 20,000 people. Before all of these newcomers arrived, there were only a small number of Calusa inhabitants (Native Americans from Florida's southwest coastal waterways).
At that time, the island looked very different from today's tropical pastiche of building styles erected neatly along landscaped streets. To imagine how Key West looked in its natural state, head to the east of the island. There, in an area wedged between the airport, neglected government lands, and the neighborhoods of New Town, is Little Hamaca City Park.
Little Hamaca is a small, beautifully preserved and protected slice of native Florida Keys ecology. It consists of a set of nature trails through a variety of native habitats including mangrove swamp, salt marsh, upland tropical forest, and elevated wetlands. It's far from the other attractions on the island, but if you're interested in Florida Keys natural habitats, this is the place.
The park doesn't get many visitors. When I walked through Little Hamaca Park in the late afternoon, there wasn't a soul in sight. That was fine with me...after navigating the crowds of Duval St. and the Old Town, this was a magical moment of tranquility and solitude.
Despite its position far from the mainland, getting to Key West doesn't reqire a boat or an airplane ticket, thanks to the incredible Overseas Highway.
This engineering marvel is a roadway that crosses a series of bridges over the sea, leaping from Key to Key, before finally reaching the end of the line at Key West. The view along the Overseas Highway is spectacular, and it's a good enough reason to drive instead of flying from Miami.
The drive from Miami to Key West takes about 3.5 hours if there's no traffic, but it's an experience you'll never forget.