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Key West Walking Tour
By Deborah Straw

Visiting Key West is like stepping into an old picture postcard of Florida. Everything except the bright pink flamingos is here: the pastel cottages; the waving palms; the long, sandy beaches; and the red, languid sunsets.

Key West is a harmonious island, one where people feel free to express themselves -- with their clothing, their haircuts, their lifestyles, and their bodies (i.e., tattoos and piercings). A recent Citizen of the Day in the local newspaper said, "If you don't want to be yourself here, be someone else."

Another way the natives express themselves is through their architecture and landscaping. Key West is full of startlingly beautiful architecture. Wooden houses in whites, pinks, salmons and yellows abound; elegant homes are surrounded by palms and hibiscus; two- and three-story houses with wrap-around porches, filigreed wrought iron balconies, hidden gardens and aquamarine pools. Many have white picket fences. The scent of frangipani, hibiscus and roses hangs heavy in the warm air.

Old Town's small clapboard Conch cottages are also immensely appealing -- with their steep-pitched tin roofs, louvered wooden shutters and inviting front porches. Many homes are tiny, only six or seven hundred square feet. People sit in rattan, wicker or plastic chairs while they read, dream and play checkers. Colorful chickens, roosters and their biddies run by as cats and dogs snooze by the roadsides.

The island's National Historic District in Old Town, where our tour will be centered, includes nearly 3,000 wooden structures and several fascinating public homes and museums.

My favorite walking path can start either at South Beach or Mallory Square, situated on each end of busy Duval Street. All sites can be reached within an hour from this central artery. Key West is a near-perfect walking town because it?s flat and always temperate. The temperature seldom goes below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or above 90. Walking is popular even among the natives, twenty percent don't own a car.

The San Carlos Institute, La Casa Cuba, stands imposingly among T-shirt and ice cream shops at 516 Duval Street. With its Spanish facade, it is a monument to Cuban patriotic activity. Key West is only 90 miles from Havana, where many residents call home. The two-story building was erected in l924 and is the fourth home of the non-profit institute. The building, with its high ceilings and ornate mosaic tiles, was restored and reopened as a museum, library, school, theater and conference center in 1992. The annual January literary seminar is held here. Guided tours and films are available in both Spanish and English year round.

Closer to Mallory Square is the John James Audubon House at 205 Whitehead Street, which runs into and becomes parallel to Duval. The Bahamian-style white clapboard house, one of the oldest in the city, was built of hardwood mahogany, cypress, and heart pine in the l830s by ship's carpenters. Audubon stayed in Key West in l832, while adding 18 bird species from the Keys to his body of artwork. Many of his original engravings are on display. Other highlights include a tropical garden with fabulous white orchids and rare fruit trees and a gift shop with a tasteful selection.

Also on Whitehead Street, heading back toward South Beach, is Ernest Hemingway's home at number 970. The writer lived here between l931 and l940 with his second wife, Pauline. The Spanish Colonial stone mansion, completed in l851, is registered as a National Historic Landmark. This is the site of much of Hemingway's writing, including To Have and Have Not, Death in the Afternoon, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Many photos of Hemingway and a few early manuscripts are on display. Also memorable are the 60 foot outdoor pool (Key West's first), the author's second floor studio, the dark, antique Spanish and Mexican furniture, a Picasso Cubist cat sculpture and more than 50 real cats, supposedly descendants of Papa's feline collection. The gift shop should appeal to literary cat lovers, in particular.

Almost directly across the street is the Key West Lighthouse, with its adjoining Maritime Museum. The views of the city here are some of the best in town; I'd also recommend those from the roof of the Duval Street Holiday Inn. The tall Norfolk pines are spectacular. To see where Key Westers (or Conchs) live, a walk along the side streets is essential. Some of my favorite streets are Fleming and Southard, which run perpendicular to Duval and Whitehead, and the narrow, alluring lanes and streets that crisscross them.

Fleming Street abounds with many of the characteristic house styles of the island. Notice the scrollwork on the porches, upstairs and down, with designs of palm trees, pineapples, spindles and children. Landscaping is, as everywhere, lush. Christmas palms, royal poinciana trees, bougainvillea and the ubiquitous hibiscus grow in almost every yard. Particularly appealing are the 1880s eyebrow house (see glossary) charmer (the Samuel Roberts House) at 1025 Fleming and the gingerbread trim on the pink home at 516 Fleming.Several top-notch guesthouses are on this street, as well.

Many splendid homes also line Southard Street. Check out the light pink two-story home at 650 Southard with a widow's walk and Chinese fan palms in the front yard. Continue on to the corner of Grinnell and have a cafe con leche or a spicy Cuban sandwich at 5 Brothers Grocery (930 Southard), a popular, reasonably-priced hang-out.

Also, in this neighborhood, if you like cats (and who doesn?t in Key West?), you'll appreciate the whimsical signage of Universal Cleaners at 510 Elizabeth Street, between Fleming and Southard.This is not far from the charming and well-stocked Monroe County May Hill Russell Library at 700 Fleming Street. Check out its lush palm garden with 60 palms of 30 varieties.

If you have a car, bicycle or scooter-- or want a longer walk -- try to get out to Houseboat Row. Approximately two dozen floating homes, both wooden structures and fiberglass boats, sport porches, ornate balconies and weathervanes. To reach them, at South Beach, bear left and stay along the water, always to your right. The houseboats are 2.7 miles from South Beach.

Wherever you walk in Key West, you'll discover unexpected beauty, individual detail, and friendly people. Just take along your camera, your curiosity and your comfortable walking shoes.

Architectural terms glossary:

Conch houses -- wooden houses with wide front porches and louvered windows.

Eyebrow houses -- two-story homes where the second-story windows are partially covered by the roof, thus resembling eyebrows. Especially suited for hot climates.

Gingerbread -- decorative carved details, generally on Victorian houses. Mass produced and/or individually designed.

Victorian houses -- late 19th century wooden homes. Generally include ornamental details such as corner brackets on porches, porch columns, and fretwork fences.

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