Truman Little White House, partying at sunset, drag queens, pirate history Key West has it all and more

Key West Florida: Sunset Celebrations, Pirate History, Harry Truman, and Drag Queens

While all the Keys have their own personality, specialities and pleasures, Key West is a bit of an oxymoron. It's certainly got the laid-back Keysy feeling, but with so much to do and experience, it's hard to take the time to be laid-back.

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Key West is a popular cruise ship port, as well as a destination for those who want something very different from the rest of Florida. If you will only have a day in Key West, start with these suggestions. If you have a few days, and nights, there is even more to enjoy.

Historic Cemetery

Key West Cemetery has extensive system of graves above the ground, but the reason here has nothing to do with water levels (despite being barely above sea level). Key West is largely founded on coral, and about as easy to dig into as cement. In fact, one building in town is actually constructed of quarried coral. Note: the coral cement of the city's bedrock is far different from the fragile living coral of the reefs.

The grave stones of the cemetery also give true meaning to the phrase "got in the final word." None sums that up better than the grave of Pearl Roberts (1929 -- 1979) which reads "I told you I was sick." Although usually portrayed as the comment of a hypochondriac it's worth noting that Pearl was only 50 years old when she died.

The Historic Florida Keys Foundation gives walking tours of the cemetery.


Take the Conch Train Tours and Old Town Trolley tour. A great way to orient yourself, get around town to the attractions. The 90-minute tour goes through the entire Key West, not just the historic heart but some of the out-of-downtown spots including the beach. This is a hop on and off.

Museums of Pirates and Sunken Treasure

For a place that's known for partying more than history, there are some wonderful museums that illuminate Key West's truly fascinating history.

Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum tells the story of one of the countries most amazing sunken treasure finds. The short version is that Mel Fisher uncovered the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha in 1985. But what the museum tells you is the long torturous journey to find it, and the true treasures he and his partners uncovered.

In 1622 treasure fleet a combined fleet of 28 ships left Havana harbor for Spain loaded with treasure. It was driven off course by a hurricane. Two ships, including the Atocha carried more than 2 million ducats. When found main cargo hold it was a virtual reef of silver bars, chests of coins, over 1000 silver bars and boxes of coins. When found main cargo hold it was a virtual reef of silver bars, chests of coins, over 1000 silver bars and boxes of coins.

There are displays and recreation of reef, but it's a bit disappointing. Silver sitting in the ocean for hundreds of years is actually dull and colorless. But the rooms of treasure make up for it. Serious gold chains and a gold ingot you pick up in your hands. A gold bar with stampings on it 74 ounces of gold. And lovely to touch - smooth, and gorgeous intense color of gold leaf. Literally pounds of it.

Don't miss learning about 1856 Key West and the era of the wreckers -- Key West's unique maritime heritage and how it became the richest city in the United States. The Key West Shipwreck Museum combines actors, films and the actual artifacts from the 1985 rediscovery of the wrecked vessel Isaac Allerton, which sank in 1856 on the Florida Keys reef.

Master wrecker Asa Tift and his crew tell you the story of how this unusual industry provided for the livelihoods of the early pioneers of Key West. The museum is a recreated warehouse filled with replicas of things salvaged. The audio visual presentations are very well done. There are video interviews and recreated events. Many of the founding families of Key West were wreckers. First man to get to the wreck owned it. You can also climb the 65' lookout tower for a 360 degree view of Key West.

Harry Truman and Ernest Hemingway

Harry Truman's Little White House in Key West As with many houses of famous people, it isn't the rooms and the decoration that make the visit. It's the stories told by the docents. And the Little White House stories are priceless. The ones surrounding the poker table alone are worth the admission. Yes, there was poker. Lots of poker. But also great Truman insight, humor, and charm. And the reason for The Buck Stops Here plaque.

Ernest Hemingway's House, the Southernmost point of the continental USA, Butterfly gardens, shopping, charming streets, funky restaurants. Visitors can happily spend several days being charmed by Key West.

Sunset Celebration

And then, night comes, and it's time to party.

One way to both mellow out and do a popular Key West activity is to... watch the sunset. You can do it anywhere of course, including from a boat that sails along the shore, but go down to Mallory Square and enjoy the Sunset Celebration.

The Key West Sunset Celebration happens every sunset. Jugglers, tightrope walkers, clowns, guitar players, artists of all kinds set up their individual spaces. Boats cruise the waters. People stroll among the performers. Station yourself by one of the musicians, and stand along with everyone else, simply watching the sun set. There is no charge, and the performers make no salary. If you watch a performance, enjoy the music, provide a donation. They work solely on tips.

Catch a Howard Livingston and the Mile Marker 24 Band

Howard Livingston epitomizes the story of the Keys. This former businessman fell in love with the lifestyle, weather, and water. The decision was easy. He was going to move to the Keys and make music. Today, Howard strums his way through mellow, Keysy, tropical music that's a delight. Plus, he makes margaritas (using his specially constructed outboard motor) that's passed around in tiny cups for the audience to get into the Margaritaville feeling. And that's easy to do when Howard sings "Blame It On The Margaritas" and "Livin' On Key West Time." Check his schedule at and plan on a wonderful concert.

Drag Queens

Key West is home to main two drag performer venues. There's the Aqua Nightclub, at 711 Duval Street which has quite a following, but if you stop by the Bourbon Bar and Cabaret at 801 Duval you'll likely meet Sushi, with a distinct come-hither look. Go upstairs and prepare to be entertained by some of the most outrageous and funniest drag queen acts who stroll, ham it up and soon has everyone stuffing dollars into their clothing. The early show is generally (relatively) tamer.

Day or night, and anytime of year, Key West is a true Keysy experience. For more information go to Florida Keys. I'm ready.

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Neala McCarten

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: October 29, 2016

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