ministry logo



Key West 2016

During my backpacking days, my plan had been that I would see Hawaii when I was 50.  It would have been the last state in which I would have hiked a major trail or 150 miles, a goal I set sometime in my late 20’s.  A goal I came close to achieving, but gave up on when I retired the back-pack.    Things change. 

Now, at 57, I was going to see Hawaii, not with a pack, though some hiking was planned, but from a hotel room, a rented car, walks on the beach with my husband, swimming in the ocean and poolside hammocks.    It would be different from my original plans, but in no way a bad thing. 

For months we made our plans for our Hawaii get-away.  There were volcanoes to see, whales to watch, a luau to attend, friends to visit, coffee plantations to tour and most importantly- warmth, sunshine and swimmable waters.  Kona, Hawaii would be our base camp, but we really wanted to see as much of the island as we could.

The dogs had been dropped off the night before our departure. Getting them there was a trip made longer and more treacherous by the swift and heavy snowfall slowing the traffic and limiting visibility.  The snow was due to end in the night and so we were hoping it would not affect our flight and it added to our pleasure in getting out of Chicago and into the warmth and sunshine of the islands.

We were up and at it at 4 a.m. – it was going to be a very long day of traveling.  Before leaving the house, I checked the airline website to confirm our flight was in good standing and on schedule.  It was all a “go”.  We got to the airport in good time, security was unusually fast, the information screen confirmed our flight was on time and we were at our gate about 45 minutes prior to boarding – just in time to watch the status go from “on time” to “delayed 5 hours”.  Five hours!  It couldn’t be.  We were supposed to fly to Phoenix, sit around for about an hour or so and then catch our flight to Kona – arriving about 3:00 that afternoon – enough time to catch the last of the sun.  Five hours would not work.  We, like the many other couples heading to Hawaii then got in line to talk to the attendant about our options.  Our options were not good.  While Allen stood in line, I got on the phone, hoping to be able to skip the line as each person was taking an awful long time to be processed.

I was told that the delay was a mechanical thing, that we could still fly into Phoenix and then catch the next days’ flight to Kona, that they would not be providing accommodations in Phoenix, there were no other flights to book us on.  I relayed the information to Allen and the look on his face was almost scary.  He had not been looking forward to the long flight (his back makes it hard to sit in the cramped seats for very long) anyway, and the thought of losing a day and a half of our vacation was going to push him over the edge.   I called Priceline to make sure we could cancel our hotel and flight without any penalty – they confirmed that.    We had to make a decision – lose the time, go home and take our vacation later or choose some other destination.

 I called the airline to cancel our flight and as I was doing that, we decided to try for Puerto Rico – but dismissed that idea since we did not bring our passports (yes, we thought of that too – afterward – we did not need passports).  Allen asked if I had ever been to Key West – I hadn’t.  There were flights available.  We booked them.  I had to go to the ticket counter to pick them up, which meant another trip through security.   We had a few hours to kill, and while Allen stood in line to get his boarding pass, I was on my phone looking for hotel rooms in Key West.  Damn, they were expensive.  It took me a while, but I finally found a place that had a room for the days we would be there, and the description confirmed that there was a pool and an ocean view.  More than I wanted to pay, but there was simply nothing else.
Goodbye Kona, hello Key West.  This was turning into a real adventure.  We had to change planes in Charlotte, NC where we were delayed for an hour so they could de-ice the wings.  At the airport, Allen posts about our change on Face Book.  His friend, Bruce, messages him that he lives in Key West and would love to see us, maybe have dinner that very evening.

The Key West airport is a very basic one.  After a rather rough landing, the stairs were rolled up to the plane and we disembarked and crossed the tarmac to get to the gate.  We were directed to the taxi lines where a driver of an 8 person van took our bags, put them in the van, invited us to take a seat and then asked where we were going.  After telling him, he went back to the line and grabbed other riders.  Eventually he filled all the seats and the body of the van with luggage which I ended up practically lying on as they were piled all about and left no room for my legs, except atop the bags.

We were the first to be let off; check-in to the hotel was pretty easy.  For the amount of money we were paying, one would expect a bit more luxury, but the place ended up looking more like a glorified Red Roof Inn.  Our room had 2 queen-sized beds squeezed into it, leaving very little room to sit, and no room to sit together.  Allen rolled the desk chair and moved it in between the two beds and I sat in the club chair on the other side of one of the beds.  At least it was clean.

As we were getting settled, Allen heard from Bruce who was not going to be able to join us that evening after all.  After changing clothes (it was in the 70’s and a bit humid – which was more than fine for me) we got directions to a grocery store about 20 minutes away on foot and headed out – we needed booze!   Deciding that this would be a week of gin and tonic, we got the necessary supplies, some cheese and crackers (and of course, Diet Coke) and walked back to our room where we settled in to watch the Grammy’s.  We were worn out emotionally and physically and were both looking forward to a good night’s sleep.  We were officially on vacation.

The next morning, while Allen slept, I got up to survey our surrounds.  Our hotel was on the Northeastern corner of the island – at the complete opposite end of the island from the historic old town (probably why we were able to find a room).   It faced the very busy Roosevelt Rd, one of the main arteries of Key West, taking travelers onto the famous US Highway 1, the highway connecting the string of keys to the Florida mainland.  Across from the road lay the Gulf of Mexico and a number of mangrove shrubs growing close to shore.   There were quite a bit of bicyclists using the wide walkway that followed the shore and plenty of deeply tanned bicyclists riding them.  The sky was overcast, but it did not look like it would amount to anything.  The sun could be sensed right behind the clouds and a light breeze kept the humidity at bay.

After a light breakfast, we decided to go into town and begin our “tourist-ing”.  There did not seem to be any public transportation running any regular routes from what we could tell, so we decided to rent a car.  The airport was only about a mile and half away, so while Allen cleaned up, I made the walk.  The route led me Northwest and as I made the curve of the island it struck me as sort of “cool”  that I was able to look upon the Gulf of Mexico to my left and the Atlantic ocean to my right – it felt a bit fascinating.    I arrived at the airport just as the clouds opened up and a drenching, hard rain began to fall.  I had literally just stepped under the overhang of the airport building when this happened.  It did not last long, and by the time I had gotten the vehicle, it had stopped completely and the sun was beginning to make its appearance.

They only had three vehicles available, and so I took the cheapest – a Dodge Caravan.  After getting into the vehicle, I spent the next 15 minutes trying to figure out how to get it started.  They had handed me a key fob that had a short nub of key sticking out of it.  I tried it in the key hole, but it would not turn, and in one attempt, it got sort of stuck and took me quite a bit to get it out again.  I thought maybe it was one of those keyless cars that only needed the fob nearby and   that a button would start it – but I could find no button.  Finally, I conceded defeat and went back to the rental desk and asked the attendant how to start the car.  She took the fob, and pointed out the square protrusion at the opposite end of the key blade – that was what I was supposed to insert – who knew?  It’s amazing how easily things can work when you know what you are doing.  Getting back to the hotel, before Allen saw what I was driving, I had accidentally called it a Navigator.  When he saw what it actually was he had a good laugh.  I’ve never been a person who pays much attention to cars and vans – I only know that I drive a pick up and all the rest are indistinguishable cars.

It was coincidental that I was reading a book about the turn of the 19th century, through it I learned that in the late 1880’s Key West was America’s richest city per capita and that in the 1930’s the city declared bankruptcy, so it has certainly had its ebbs and flows.  It is one of those edgy, eccentric places that have attracted many characters throughout its history.  Ponce De Leon, Harry Truman, Ernest Hemingway of course, Robert Frost and Tennessee Williams and many, many others have all left their mark on the island.   In my youth I knew it as a haven for gays and artists, a place where all things idiosyncratic came together and were at peace with each other. 

Duval Street bisects the old town area and the locals speak of it as the longest main street in the world because it goes from coast to coast, from the Gulf to the Atlantic.  It is a very commercial street lined with a number of historical sites and an olio of architectural styles.  Many of the older buildings are now being used as inns, restaurants, art galleries and, of course, plentiful tourist attractions and souvenir shops.

We started our tour at the Atlantic end of Duval and walked toward the gulf.  There is a New Orleans feel to the place, bright and colorful, balconies overhead, leaning wooden buildings set against more robust stone edifices, lots of bars and restaurants.  Our trek took us by the Hemingway house (where a line 2 blocks long was slowly making their way through the ticket booth), the old lighthouse (we were later told that Hemingway wanted to live near the lighthouse in order to more easily find his way home after nights of hard drinking), as well as Truman’s ‘Southern White House”.

There were roosters and chickens wandering all over the town, hens leading their chicks, roosters brazenly going wherever they wanted to, chickens scooping out dirt to make cooler sitting places.  Colorful, noisy, and unfazed by foot or auto traffic, they seem to have a mixed relationship with the residents who seem to either love them or hate them.  There are signs all about, warning against the feeding of the chickens, and yet they wander onto restaurant patios and take whatever might be lying around – never saw one that looked like it was doing without.    They’re fun to watch, add splashes of color (and noisy crowing) and enhance the off-beat charm of  the town.

We stopped at the Southernmost Point of the island, just off of Duval St.  The place is marked by a large red, white, black and yellow buoy, its’ significance painted on the monument itself.  The Southern most point of the United States, it is actually closer to Cuba (90 miles away) than it is to Miami (150 miles away).  There were plenty of tourist vehicles in the area, discharging their passengers who would then line up on the sidewalk, taking turns to take their picture in front of the buoy.  We bypassed the line and took our photos from the rear of the monument and from street-side. 

We took our lunch at the famous Pinchers Crab Shack where I indulged myself with conch and Allen got to enjoy some shrimp (he just doesn’t get enough shrimp since I developed my allergy to them).  During this time, Bruce and Allen were in contact via texting and we made a date to meet Bruce before he had to go to work.   He was giving us a quick tour of the Old Town and was quite surprised by what we had already seen.  He also let us know what was worth seeing and doing, and what we could safely skip.   After giving us what time he could, we made plans to meet for breakfast the next morning and said goodbye.  The rest of the day was spent pool-side, trying to get as dark as the natives in the short time we had to us.

Of course, going to Key West, it is almost mandatory that we have some Key Lime Pie.  I fulfilled this obligation at breakfast with Bruce and Allen.  We met at Azur in the Old Town, a place with a creative, Mediterranean-based menu.  Ordering the key lime pie French toast, I expected the toast would be flavored like a key lime pie.  What I did not expect was that wedges of key lime pie (sans the cream topping) inserted between the slices of French Toast – really good and a lot of calories. 

After our breakfasting, Bruce left to take care of some business and Allen and I walked over to the Hemingway House.   Luckily, the cruise ships had not yet disembarked their passengers, so the blocks –long line we witnessed the first day was not yet present.

 Ernest Hemingway first came to Key West in the late 1920’s where he learned and learned to love big game sports fishing.  After spending several seasons on the island, they decided to buy a house.   The Spanish Colonial home, made from native stone, was originally built in 1851 and was in disrepair when Hemingway purchased it.  After a major restoration and remodeling the Hemingway’s lived there for about 10 years or so.  It is now a National Historical Landmark attracting thousands of visitors each year.

One feature of the house that the guides like to spend time on is the swimming pool.  It was the first in-ground pool in Key West and the only pool within 100 miles.  It seems his wife at the time, angry at Ernest for his philandering ways, replaced his boxing ring set up with the pool.  It cost over 20,000 in 1937 dollars.  The guides also like to point out a penny embedded in cement between flagstones at the north end of the pool.  It is said that Ernest embedded the coin there, proclaiming “here, take the last penny I’ve got.’  Apocryphal or not, it is a great story.


The many rooms of the house are filled with all sorts of furniture and mementos from Hemingway’s’ journeys around the world.  There are antique European furniture that he had collected while staying in Europe, trophy heads and skins from his African safaris and hunting trips in the American west and mounted fish from his forays into the Gulf and Atlantic.  It was in this house that he wrote many of his best known works.  There are posters from movies adapted from his works hanging on the walls, typewriters he used and all the other sorts of personal and period items that one usually finds in these historical homes.  And of course, lying on the furniture, wandering through the house and in great numbers within the walls of the property are the famous Hemingway cats.

Hemingway was a true cat lover, referring to them as his “purr factories.”  In 1935 a ship captain visiting Hemingway, gave him a six-toes cat named Snowball.  Snowball soon gave birth to a number of litters of six-toed kittens, and Hemingway would name them after the famous people of his time: Billie Holiday, Hunter Thompson, Betty Grable, etc.  A practice continued by the house staff to this day. Over 60 of Snowballs’ descendants continue to live on the grounds and are very well taken care of.  There’s even a cat graveyard on the grounds.

After seeing the house and the cats, we again wandered up and down the main tourist streets.  We were hunting for our requisite refrigerator magnet and ball cap and so toured each and every tourist shop until we found just the right items.  It’s amazing how different these streets were each and every time we walked them.  There was always something we had missed on prior wanderings,  always interesting characters (both local and tourist) to take note of, a plethora of foreign languages to be heard, the ubiquitous selfie-stick sticking up everywhere and  colorful chickens popping up in the most surprising places.  It was a place I could really get used to.

Based on recommendations by Bruce and the guide books, we took a day to go to Bahia Honda State Park.  Traveling Hwy 1 from Key West, our first stop was Big Pine Key and the National Key Deer Refuge.  Stopping at the Visitor Center located in a small strip mall, we were directed to the better viewing areas and trails as well as a couple of other sites that we were encouraged to see.  The Key Deer is the smallest sub-species of the Virginia white-tailed deer.  The population is low (about 800 deer) and they are federally listed as endangered.  This means the very low speed limit is strictly enforced when travelling through their habitat.  A sign posted along the roadway keeps count of how many were hit and killed over the year.  They are about 30 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh up to about 75 pounds when full grown

We drove a ways, the road taking us through large tracts of pine forest.  It was a lovely day and the drive was scenic and pleasant.  We did spy some of the deer along the road way, under the shade of the trees.  Coming to the end of the road, we turned around and headed back the way we came, stopping at what was called the Blue Hole. 

The Blue Hole is an abandoned limestone quarry now filled with water.  It is home to fish, turtles, birds and alligators.  Signs were posted on the trail surrounding the quarry, warning us not to feed or harass the alligators – that it was both dangerous and illegal.  We walked the trail and scanned the water, but never did see an alligator, though we saw several deer, some turtles and an iguana that was at least 3 feet long.

From the Blue Hole, we made our way to a couple of hiking trails.  We walked both of the trails, but did not see much in the way of wildlife until we got back to the parking lot and found a family of four deer who did not seem to be threatened by the presence of humans, getting as close as 3 feet away. 

Returning to Hwy 1 we continued our journey to the beach.  Touted as one of the best beaches in the area, the park takes up almost all the Bahia Honda Key and so the island is virtually uninhabited.  The beaches are narrow and sea grass abounds.  The park purposefully does not rake up the grasses or seaweeds so as to disturb the local eco-system any more than necessary.  The sand is white and the shallow waters extend quite a ways out before becoming deep – great for wading.


The skies were clear and blue, the sun bright and a slight breeze made it a perfect day for laying out (and burning, if not careful).  After renting an umbrella for Allen, and as he lay out, I walked the beach and trails and waded.  I was able to walk out yards and yards and still be only knee deep in the clear waters.  No real waves, lots of kayakers and many families dotting the shore.  We stayed on the beach for a couple of hours before heading out.  But not before we walked the trail to the original rail-road bridge that used to be part of the rail line that once connected all the keys.  In later life, an upper level was put on the bridge to allow for automobiles.  It seems to have gone out of commission in the 1970’s when Hwy 1 was completed.  From the bridge we got a panoramic view of the island and park.

On the drive back, I kept contemplating the fact that the largely 2-lane Hwy 1 is the only evacuation route to the mainland in case of hurricanes – I’ll bet that is some very slow going.
On his off days, Bruce will moonlight as a concierge at the Casa Marina Resort on Key West.  It was through his connections there that he got us hooked up with a jet-ski tour around the island.  It was a balmy morning and cool enough that Allen put on one of the wet-suits offered us.  After being instructed on the proper use of the jet-skis, the route we would take and the hand signals we would use to communicate with one another – we were off.  Following our short, handsome, well-tanned guide in single file we were going to circle the island and so jet-ski in both the Gulf and the Atlantic.  Bruce was second in line, Allen third, and I pulled up the rear.

Due to the salt water staining his glasses and impeding his sight, Allen missed the first turn that our guide had taken around some smaller islands on our route.  I had been following him at the proper distance, so I was not sure where the turn was myself.    Our guide returned for us and led us to an area where he pointed out boundaries and then set us free to move around at our leisure.  It was a lot of fun, making circles, figure eights, and simply enjoying the sense of speed.  Part of the thrill was hitting the waves and being bumped along on a miniature bronco.   After about 20 minutes of that, we were back to single file and being led through mangrove areas, meaning we were now in the Gulf.  In a very quiet, calm area, the guide once again prescribed boundaries and set us free.  After a while, I noticed that Allen was not within the bounds.  I traveled along looking for him.  I thought I saw him far, far from where we were supposed to be, but I could not be sure and I did not want to become a second MIA.   Our guide noted that I was not moving and was looking furiously around and he came to ask what was happening.   I told him, and he recognized the jet-ski and went to bring him back to the fold.  It seems his glasses were again clouded from the seawater and he was not sure where he was heading – so, of course, he just kept going.

We completed our circumnavigation of the key in about 2 hours.  I was a bit sore by the end of the trip as the slapping waves forced the seat of the vehicle into my crotch.  After drying off as much as possible and thanking our guide and Bruce for making this happen (he had to get back to work to train a new maid) we headed back to our hotel, washed off the sea water, dressed and headed out to get some lunch.


I took us back to the general area of the hotel we had started our jet-ski trip from that morning.  I took us to Higgs Beach.  It is a lovely, sandy beach on the Atlantic side of the island.  There seemed to be a host of activities to take part in, if so inclined, but we were looking for food.  The one café on the beach didn’t strike us as too appetizing, so we decided to walk the beach a bit and make our way to Duval Street to find something to eat.

The beach is home to a Civil War Era fort that, for the past 50 years, has been home to the Key West Garden Club.  There is also the largest African Refugee Burial Ground in the western hemisphere.   Supposedly, after rescuing some 1400 Africans from slave ships, they were brought to Key West.  While most of the refugees were eventually returned to Africa, 295 of them died in Key West and were buried in this cemetery.  The park is also home to one of the largest AIDS Memorials in the Country.  Embedded in the sidewalk, it is made of black, flat smooth granite, inscribed with over 1,00 names of residents who have died of AIDS, new names added each year on World AIDS Day.

We made our way back to Duval St. and ended up at La Te Da – a somewhat famous hotel/restaurant/cabaret/piano bar.  The burgers were excellent, the staff friendly and the eye-candy engaging.  After lunch, we wandered about a bit more, went through some neighborhoods before finding our way back to the beach and our vehicle.  The rest of the day was spent pool-side.

Reading the guidebooks made the islands of Marathon sound rather inviting.  Allen knew the name and thought it was another destination site in Florida.  It was only about 40 miles away on Hwy 1, halfway between Key West and Key Largo, so we decided to go see it.   Hwy 1 is made up of a series of bridges crossing from one island to the next, but there is a 7 mile long bridge that takes you into Marathon.  It is about 65 feet high, allowing for boats to cross over from the Atlantic to the Gulf and offers quite a spectacular view of the islands and ocean.
Our first stop was at the Dolphin Research Center.  We thought we would get to see some wildlife, but the steep entrance fee made us think again.  Turning to the beaches of Marathon we discovered that the islands that make up the area are big turtle-breeding area for a number of endangered species.  But, the overcast skies and cool temperatures seemed to be keeping both the turtles and the swimmers away from the beaches.  At one of the smaller beaches, a man directed us to Sombrero beach, touted in the guide book as one of the best in the Keys (but aren’t they all?).  We found it, and would have been nice on a nicer day.  We walked the beach a bit before returning to the car and heading over to the Sea Turtle Hospital and Rehabilitation Center.  Here we could have viewed and petted some of the turtles that they are caring for, but the price for doing so was out of our budget (and real interest level), so we passed.
Having seen all that Marathon seemed to be offering, we decided to head back, our day trip cut short.  Lunch was at an Outback Steak house – Allen’s first time at one, my second - probably the last time for both us.  After lunch, we ended up, as usual, poolside.
The previous summer we both enjoyed the snorkeling that we did in Belize that we thought we’d do a dolphin watching/ snorkeling outing here in Florida as well.  There was a lot of advertising by various outfits for the “best trip on the island”, but we decided to go with the same outfit that gave us the jet-ski trip.
We arrived early at the resort and walked around the neighborhoods surrounding the area.  There were a number of buildings designated as inns, guesthouses and B&B’s.  It seems to me that if a resident has a place within 2 blocks of the water – they end up turning it into some sort of commercial enterprise – especially in the old Town.  The area around our hotel is filled with single family dwellings that seem to be real homes. 
We joined about 9 other people (not counting the two man crew) for our cruise out into the Gulf.  There were 3 older couples (4 if you count me and Allen), a mother and daughter with a friend of the daughter.  Two of the couples had brought a large quantity of beer with them on board, causing the captain to ask if they wanted to begin drinking soon, they would do the snorkeling first and then hunt for dolphins.  The couples agreed to postpone the drinking so we could start with seeking out the dolphins. 
The sun was out, but the breeze was on the very cool side.   The captain took us miles and miles off shore to the usual sites where the dolphins tend to gather, but we never did see a one.  The crew consulted, over radio, with other boats, but they were not spying any either.  So, they took us to the secondary snorkeling site.  It seems that the reefs were not good for snorkeling at this time – given the time of year and the exceptionally cool weather.
In the midst of the Gulf, our boat set its anchor where we were told that we could see sponges, puffer fish, angelfish and skates.  Only half of us decided that we wanted to go in – the rest though it was too cold.  Of course, I had to go in – and the naysayers were correct – the water was extremely cold.  Wearing my supplied vest and snorkeling gear, I thought for sure I was going to take in water when I first jumped in the sea.  I was breathing fast and furious due to the cold, but I made my way through the water.  There was not that much wildlife to see.  The sponges were there and so were the angel fish as well as scads of some small, pale fish I did not recognize.  The seaweed was swaying with the flow of the water and the sun kept dipping behind the clouds and so the waters were a bit dark.  We were only in 5-7 feet of water, but were warned against standing up as it upsets the eco-system.
I lasted about 30 minutes before returning to the boat.  I had taken a number of pictures because I spent good money on the disposable underwater camera – none of the pictures came out real well.  Back on board, there was a warm water shower to rinse off with and try to get the body heat back to temp.  The shower and towels helped – a little – but I continued to shiver throughout the rest of the trip – especially when the boat sped up on its return, creating a much cooler breeze.
The trip out had followed the contours of the island with a number of slow-downs to have buildings, locations and sites of interest pointed out to us.  The return was a quicker trip, made even more so by my chill and the overwhelming need to pee.  It was a pleasant, interesting way to spend half a day, even without sighting any whales or seeing the coral reef.  February might not be the best time to be in Key West.  As usual, the rest of the day was spent pool-side.

Throughout our stay Allen was busy collecting the various lotions, shampoos, soaps, etc. provided each day by the hotel.  He has no problem helping himself from the cleaning carts – when he doesn’t think he will be caught.   I cringe each time we have to walk by one of those carts – but each time, a staff member had her eyes on his treasure – so he had to make do with the daily room re-fills, warning me that the small bottle of shampoo from the first day had to last the week.  He keeps a basket of his pilfered potions at home and at the rate he is going, it will be filled within another trip or two.  I think he gets this penchant from his father who, I am told, does the same thing.
Our last full day in Key West started out very overcast with seemingly no chance of sun for the day.  The sun did, in fact, make occasional forays out from behind the clouds, but we also got some sprinkling – but never full rain.
We were going to spend the morning at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.  Located on the far South-western “corner” of the island, the park and public beaches surround the historic fort.  In response to the war of 1812, the U.S. began to build a series of forts to defend its’ coastlines.  The building of Fort Zachary Taylor began in 1845 but was not completed until 1860 because of a lack of building materials, diseases and hurricanes.  It was originally built on a shoal 1200 feet out from the shore of Key West and connected to the Key by a causeway.  Since that time, due to dredging of the  harbor,  the fort is now connected to the larger island and much of the beaches and picnic area surrounding it are built on land fill.
A volunteer took our admission fees at the ranger station and invited us to stay for the guided tour she would be conducting at the fort in about half an hour.  Well, she had such an engaging personality and a really profound southern accent that it would have been hard to say no.  We wandered around a bit until it was time for the tour to start.  She was strict about the starting time because of the cruise ship passengers who would be joining the tour at the specified time.  By the time we started we were part of a group of about 24 people - most of them from the mid-west.
The fort is composed of four buildings – one serving as the living and dining quarters, the other 3 were for armaments.  Forty cisterns sit under the fort – many of them still usable.  The fort was modified several times in order to accommodate improved coastal artillery weapons – including removing two tiers of the fort and building two new batteries.  During these renovations, many of the Civil War-era cannons that remained were used as filler to help support the new battery walls.  It is only in the last 20 years or so that they have started to dig them out and the fort now boasts the largest collection of civil war cannons and many more remain buried.
So, the fort was modernized for the Spanish-American War and then again for World Wars 1.  For WW2, anti-aircraft guns were installed and it became a military training site.  The fort was more or less decommissioned in 1947 but was briefly used during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  It had never been under attack.
One of the stories our guide told us fascinated me.  Florida had voted to leave the union in 1861.  Without any orders from his superiors, a captain of the union army and his men marched into the fort and claimed it for the Union.  The citizens of the town didn’t really seem to mind.  They were far enough away from the mainland and the politics of the rest of the country that they were happy to continue the status quo.  Federalist troops retained control of the fort throughout the war and it became the base of operations for a navy group that prevented supply ships from reaching the Confederate ports.  Close to 300 ships were captured and detained by the squadron, but because of its defenses, Fort Zachary never saw hostile action. 
It was interesting to see the cannon from different eras and wars lined up together in the colonnaded battery, pointed out the windows from which they would fire.  The barracks were severe, the cots hard wood without mattresses.  Heavy doors some 2 feet thick, still on their original hinges would lock prisoners in the 2 small detention rooms in the fort.  The chapel was a small room in the barracks building and is now used as a classroom, where our guide familiarized us with what we were seeing.  We walked under the walls and atop the walls.  In one corner of the fort, trees were growing outside the wall, their leafy branches alive with rather large iguanas – at least a dozen of them soaking in the sun.  Many of them looked too heavy for the branches they were laying on, but they did not seem to notice.  After the tour, we wandered around the park a bit, along the beach and through the tree clusters before returning to the hotel and grabbing a nap before heading out again. 
It’s said that all roads in Key West lead to Mallory Square – a plaza on the waterfront in the Old Town adjacent to the cruise ship ports, facing the Gulf of Mexico.  It is here, every night of the year, 2 hours before sunset that crowds begin to gather for the world-famous Sunset Celebrations.
The Sunset Celebrations are the gathering of hundreds of tourists arriving to watch the sunset.  And, wherever you find a large gathering of tourists you also find arts and crafts exhibitors, street performers, food carts, musicians, vendors, and the city’s eclectic mix of residents.  I thought it only fitting that we experience it at least once, and that our last evening in town would be best.
The square was filled with merry-makers, juggling acts, tarot card readers and magicians.  We watched a few of the jugglers, caught the tail end of a magic show, and looked at the art and booths set up all along the square.  Our favorite act was a woman in a sparkling blue mermaid outfit, sitting on a stool playing her guitar and singing.  Whenever she would smile, all three of her upper teeth would shine.  It was hilarious.

In our wandering, we ran into a friend of Allen’s who was on the island to see another friend perform at a local venue.  That was a pleasant surprise for Allen.  We joined everyone on the plaza in applauding the sunset when it happened – and it happened a bit early because of the clouds, but the colors were still beautiful and magical. After the sun made its exit, we wandered through some of the local merchants and I bought some gifts for people at home.  We also went through the Sculpture Garden on the square – bronze busts of people who had made a major impact in Key West.

We then headed out to Stock Island where we were to meet Bruce and his parents for supper.  It was to be at a place he had recommended our first day on the island but we never got to – Hogfish Bar and Grill.  I was beginning to question the GPS as we were, according to it, drawing near to the restaurant.  We were driving down rather dark streets, trailers and rough looking homes on either side, down to the docks and, apparently, a large boat and net repair area.  The restaurant was the only bright and lit place in the area.  We found parking down the dimly lit street from the restaurant, parking in front of what looked like some sort of industrial equipment.

The restaurant is an open-air eatery known for its namesake hogfish sandwich.  A thatched roof ceiling, picnic tables lined up along the dock, a pool table, and plenty of good ol’ boys at the bar or enjoying their dinners.  Bruce told us it was quite a popular place for the locals who liken it to the way the Keys used to be – fresh seafood, strong drinks and a panoramic waterfront view.  The seafood comes straight off the boats, and people can even bring their own catch in to have it cleaned and cooked.  It sits at the street end of a marina. 


Allen got a text from Bruce that he and his parents were running late due to a traffic accident.  So, we gave the host our names and as Allen waited, I walked down the marina to see what could be seen.  There were repair shops, some people seemed to be living off the pier, others in their boats.  It was dark and run-down looking in the night lights and if not for the restaurant, it would have been a very scary place to wander alone.

When I got back, Bruce and his parents were there and we all waited together.  It was very pleasant.  Bruce’s parents come every year in their RV and park it at an RV park about 20 miles from Key West.  They seem a fun and adventurous couple, with a great sense of humor and gregarious personalities.  Allen ordered the namesake sandwich and I ordered what I thought was their take on a Cuban sandwich.  What it actually turned out to be was a sort of meat loaf sandwich in patty form- rather dry and flavorless.  I ate it, but it was not what I had in mind for my last meal in Key West.  Should have stuck with the hogfish (which, when you google it, is a very ugly fish).

Because Bruce’s folks had to make the drive back to the RV park, the dinner ended a bit early and we bid each other a good night and a good-bye.  Back at the hotel, we packed, drank and watched CNN.  Allen, much to my surprise, actually managed to get all his shampoos and lotions in his bag.

The next morning we got to the airport a bit early, but I had to have the vehicle back by 9.  Our flight was not until 11.  Just as I handed over the keys to the rental attendant, alarm bells went off.  It was a fire alarm; the airport was having a fire drill.  We were directed to make our way to the roadway and away from the terminal building.  When we stopped at what we thought was a reasonable distance we were directed to go even further until we were at the end of the road that fronted the building.  As I watched the terminal building empty, I had to wonder about the people who had gone through security and the pain of having to go back through it again.  After the firemen gave us the “all clear”, we returned to the building and got in line for security and check in.

Sitting in the airport and reading, I eventually had my question answered.  The fire alarm went off again and those of us who were at the gates were ushered out to the tarmac for the drill.  We only spent about 5 minutes out there and had no further alarms before our departure.  This was the first time I have experienced a fire drill at an airport – and to have two of them on the same day seemed and interesting way to end our time in Florida. 

The rest of the day went as scheduled.  We were back in Chicago just in time for the rush hour traffic.  It was cold and our truck was covered in a very deep coating of dust.  While we were gone, there had been some very hard blowing winds that must have been the cause of the dirt.  We made our way slowly through traffic, having to stop at the boarders to pick up the kids.  They always seem to enjoy their time there and at times I even think they prefer it.

Key West was interesting.  It was not the Hawaiian vacation we had planned, but as a last-minute decision, we probably could have done worse.  Maybe next year. ..?