This year, my February cruise took me to the ports of Key West, Florida and Cozumel, Mexico. Our first stop was in Key West, via Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas. We came into port at 11:30 am and were cleared to leave the ship by noon. During the afternoon, we visited the Southernmost Point, the Key West Lighthouse, Hemingway’s House, 0 Mile and tasted some outstanding chocolate covered Key Lime Pie. Read on and enjoy!
Key West by Cruise Ship
The pier in Key West is located at the Navy Base, which is a good ways from town. To accommodate cruise passengers, the cruise line partners with the city and sends out trolleys to transport folks into town, free of charge. Whether you get to climb aboard the ghost tour trolley, the Conch Tour Train or any of the other buses sent to pick up cruisers, you’ll enjoy a short ride to Mallory Square, where the trolleys drop passengers off. Mallory Square is rated #3 for things to do in Key West on TripAdvisor, and I couldn’t help but smile at our good fortune of being dropped off at such a great spot!
The Southernmost Point
From Mallory Square, the group of folks we were with turned on the trusted “blue dot” and GPS’d our way to the Southernmost Point – the bouy. Google maps said the walk was only seven tenths of a mile, and everyone agreed that was a great way to walk off the calories we acquired in the dining room the previous evening. It felt like the longest seven tenths I ever walked, but we made it and joined the line waiting for photos. Here, I must give a shout out to everyone who stood in that line, though they may never read this. I have never been in a tourist area where people have been so patient to wait for their turn. No one cut line, no one complained and everyone was happy to snap photos for strangers. Welcome to the Florida Keys! When it came our turn, we snapped our photo, stepped to the side to soak in the area for a moment and then moved on.
The Key West Lighthouse
On our walk back from the buoy, we stopped at the Key West Lighthouse. At first it seemed strange to have a lighthouse in the middle of town, but a quick read of the plaque on the gatepost shared the lighthouse’s story. The U.S. Navy established a base at Key West in 1823 and during that time, the island witnessed an average of one shipwreck each week due to the shoals in the area. The very first lighthouse was washed away in the 1823 hurricane. The structure we see today was constructed in 1848 and has been standing ever since. The view from the top was breathtaking. You could see the cruise ships at the pier, the islands off in the distance and all of Key West. It was worth the climb! There was also a museum in the lightkeeper’s cottage and I liked how their displays were unique and really emphasized the history of the people who lived there. My favorite exhibit was the wedding dress from one of the lightkeeper’s wives.
After the stop at the lighthouse, we walked further down the street and took a tour of Ernest Hemingway’s House. This historical site is rated #2 on TripAdvisor and as someone who loves reading, cats and historic homes, it was right up my alley! There was an $18 admission charge for adults, but if you have a group of 10 or more, the price dropped to $12 per adult. We were volunteered to join a French lady’s group, which she rounded up on the spur of the moment from all the people in line behind her. I had to smile at her ingenuity, though the employee taking money at the gate wasn’t so thrilled. LOL!
We stepped inside the home just in time to tag along with the guided tour (no extra charge) that started every half hour. The guided tour took us through several rooms of the house and a few spots outside. We started out in the dining area on the first floor. (This room is the first on the left when you walk in the house.) The guide gave us a brief introduction to Hemingway’s life and let us know that unlike most home tours, we were free to take as many photos as we wanted and could even come back inside the house after the tour and look around some more. Their only request was not to sit on the furniture or pick up the cats, though we were free to pet the furry creatures.
From the dining room we walked upstairs to the room that was left at the top of the stairs. The guide pointed out that there was a fireplace in the corner, which, was obviously not needed for heat because of the climate. However, there was a doorway at the back of the room that opened into a large bathroom. Key West didn’t have running water until 1944, but when it did, Hemingway’s house was the first in town to enjoy such a commodity. The next room we visited featured framed photos from Hemingway’s travels to Africa and even a photo from when he was in the war. We continued to Hemingway’s bedroom, where a black cat was curled up on the covers. The property has 54 cats, who are direct descendants of Hemingway’s very first cat, Snow White.
Outside, we saw the swimming pool and Hemingway’s writing studio. The writing studio was originally a hay barn, which Hemingway didn’t need, so he turned it into a place where he could create his novels. Hemingway lived at this residence from 1931-1940 and completed 90% of his works there. It was where he wrote The Green Hills of Africa and many of his famous novels, with the exception of The Old Man and the Sea, which he wrote in Cuba. Before the tour ended, our guide explained one more interesting fact about the house…it has never sustained serious damage by a hurricane. The walls are constructed by 18 inch thick limestone, which protects the structure from high winds. Also, the house sits on the second highest point in the Florida Keys – 16 feet above sea level!
Key Lime Pie
After the tour at Hemingway’s house, we punched in a new destination for our “blue dot” to direct us to – a place that sold Key Lime Pie. Key West is known for their Key Lime Pie, but not just average pie. The pie on the island is covered with dark chocolate and served on a popsicle stick. Sweet isn’t an accurate word to describe this delicious dessert – it’s more like an injection of pure sugar, but I guarantee you’ve never had anything like it! The place to try it is called Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe, but there are several places around the island that sell the exact recipe. By the time we were ready to try the sweet, it was getting late and we needed to head back to the trolley stop and return to our ship, so we bought a packaged pie from a shoppe on Duval Street, enjoyed and then headed back to the square.
Finally, a visit to Key West wouldn’t be complete without a picture at the “0 Mile” road marker. It’s not far from Mallory Square and we passed it on our walk back to the trolley stop. This was one of those things that didn’t feel as gimmicky as you might think. Why not? Because it’s just on the side of the road. It blends in with the surroundings and felt like a true landmark.
At The End Of The Day…
Don’t underestimate the island. Though it’s small, there’s a lot to see and do. Coming in from a cruise ship, we only had a few hours to explore the key, and we didn’t even make it to the beach! Regardless, we enjoyed our time there and I wouldn’t mind going back. After walking around all afternoon, the island reminded me of an upscale version of Nassau (Bahamas). The streets are narrow, the plant life is vibrant and completely foreign to Midwesters (like me!) and there are plenty of shops on Duval Street. If you wanted to visit every historical place, plus the beach, you could easily spend three to four days in Key West.
P.S. – Be on the lookout for chickens. They are protected by the city and roam the streets freely! A little different from most U.S. tourist destinations, but a great photo opt!