It sounds odd, but some people don't like Key West at first sight. Robert Frost, who came down at age 60 in the winter of 1934, thought it "unsanitary and shabby." But then he met fifth-generation Key Wester Jessie Porter, who introduced him to the island's history of pirates and plunder, and later to some of her friends, including Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, and Mrs. Ernest Hemingway, aka Pauline. Porter's other friends were said to include the likes of Hollywood divas Gloria Swanson and Tallulah Bankhead. Key West began to work its charms on Old Bob about then.
Here are some overlooked museums and walking tours in Key West.
Key West Museums and Attractions
Frost allegedly inspired Porter to buy and restore what is now the Heritage House Museum (410 Caroline Street, tel. 305/296-3573; www.heritagehousemuseum.org). Here, Porter lent Frost a rent-free garden cottage, where he wintered for 15 years. In all, Porter restored 33 homes and helped with hundreds more. Frost wrote his famous "The Gift Outright" in 1942, capturing her commitment to Key West and its heritage and history. At President John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961, Frost recited this poem from memory when the bright sunlight reflecting off his manuscript prevented him from reading the original piece written for the occasion. Open 10am-4pm daily (except Sundays); $5 for a self-guided tour; $7 for a guided tour.
Volunteers are behind the acquisition, renovation, and museum opening of the USCGC Mohawk (Truman Waterfront, Old US Navy Pier, tel. 305/799-1143; www.ussmohawk.org), a World War II-era Coast Guard Cutter that saw action in the Battle of the North Atlantic. Most ships from that period have been salvaged, so a fully operational vessel such as this is rare. As a Memorial Museum, it's an endearing testimony to the Coast Guard, which not only protected the shoreline of the United States, but has sent ships and crew as far afield as the Persian Gulf, Normandy, Vietnam, and Korea in past conflicts. Open 10am-4pm Mondays through Saturdays.
If you haven't time to get out and discover the glories of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, you can get a taste of it by visiting the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center (35 East Quay Road, tel. 305/809-4750; www.floridakeys.noaa.gov), at the entrance to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park in Old Town. In addition to a movie in its Discovery Theater, you can experience living underwater in a mock-up of Aquarius, the world's only underwater ocean lab, or take virtual tours of the Dry Tortugas or a 1,600-foot dive. Best of all, it's free. Exhibits and museum store open 9am-4pm Tuesdays through Saturdays; closed some holidays.
Weird or Wired Walking Tours
Key West is the home base for Trusted Tours (tel.305/292-8990; www.trustedtours.com), a division of Historic Tours of America, which began here in 1958 with the famous Conch Tour Train. The walking tour (twice or thrice daily) starts from Mallory Square on the waterfront. Each lasts from 90 minutes to 2 hours and costs $16.20 for an adult. A 90-minute ghost tour is $15.
Guide yourself on a walking tour with a hand-held GPS Ranger from The Key West Speedway (218 Whitehead Street, tel. 305/293-8891; www.gogpstours.com).
With the hand-held GPS device, you can set your own pace and choose what to stretch out or ignore. There are also bits of history trivia and old photos to help entertain you. The device is yours to use for 3 hours for $29, or you might try guided electric-car tours. A two-seater costs $89 for 3 hours. Reservations are recommended, but you can also walk in.
The Gay Community Integrates
The gay and lesbian community of Key West is said to be diminishing, but is measured at around a healthy 35 percent, according to the local Business Guild. The community continues to be increasingly integrated into the non-gay majority, both socially and in business, which is why there are fewer gay-specific businesses than there were a decade or two ago.
The nation's oldest gay tour operator, Hanns Ebensten Travel (tel. 866/294-8174; www.hetravel.com), has been based here since 1972. The company specializes in trips to Egypt and Easter Island, among others. Many of the programs are geared toward all travelers, says the company's president Phil Sheldon. He owns another tour company, Alyson Adventures (tel. 800/825-9766; www.alysonadventures.com), which offers soft adventure travel, featuring biking, hiking, rafting, diving and multiple activities on five continents and the South Pacific.
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