Key West – the end of the road or the beginning?

We drove down U.S. Highway 1 from Miami to Key West in mid-October 2015.  This turned out to be a great time to visit as the weather was cooling down from the hot and humid summer.  Key West is the southernmost city in the continental United States.   It is closer to Havana, Cuba (106 miles) than to Miami, Florida (129 miles/160miles by car).

Key West was relatively isolated until 1912, when it was connected to the Florida mainland via the Overseas Railway. 

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Before our trip we read Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean by Les Standiford.  The railroad ran down through the keys to Key West.  It was an almost impossible feat and helped transform the Keys.  Still, it never became the commercial success that Mr. Flagler hoped and most of the railway was destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 which also killed hundreds of residents and workers. 

It was too expensive to restore so the U.S. government took over the railway and rebuilt it as an automobile highway, completed in 1938.  The Overseas Highway is a scenic 113 mile section of US 1 that links the Florida mainland with Key West.  There are 42 bridges along the way!

There are portions of the original railroad bridges still visible and accessible on foot.

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Between the bridges are small islands (keys) with little towns and marshy sea side parks.

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One bridge is 7 miles long!  You can see the old railroad bridge to the right.

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Here’s another view of the old railroad bridge.

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In Key West we stayed in a lovely B&B called the Artist House on Fleming in Old Town.  It was decorated for Halloween, which is a very big holiday here.

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Old Town includes the Key West Historic District and is located on the western end of the island.  There are lots of classic bungalows and guest mansions.  Most date from 1886 to 1912.  The basic architectural features are wood-frame, 1 to 2 1/2 stories, peaked metal roofs, horizontal wood siding, gingerbread trim, pastel shades of paint, louvered shutters, and covered porches and balconies.

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These two pictures show one interesting feature on many homes – the ceilings of the porches are painted blue to represent the sea.  This is supposed to keep evil spirits from making it into your house as they do not cross water.

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The harbor was a short walk from our B&B.

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Just a short walk along Front Street from Mallory Square (down town) is The Little White House.  This was the vacation retreat of President Harry Truman.  It was also used by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, Colin Powell and the Clintons. 

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The house was built in 1890 for U.S. Navy officers.  In 1918 Thomas Edison lived here while conducting experiments and developing weapons for the U.S. Navy during WWI.  Truman used it as a retreat and Winter White House from 1946 to 1952.  The house has been restored to this time period.  Sorry, no pictures inside. 

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Here is Henry Flagler, the man who built the railroad to Key West.  The old station and schedule is preserved.

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There are lots of hop on-hop off trolleys and trains to get around town.

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Important sites were pointed out from the trolley.

The Custom House

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St. Paul’s Church is bright and airy.

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This is the southern terminus of U.S. Highway 1.

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Everyone thinks this concrete buoy marks the southernmost  point of the continental United States.  The true southernmost point is Ballast Key, a private island owned by a wealthy developer, about 10 miles west of Key West. The claim “90 Miles to Cuba” on the monument is close to correct. It has actually been measured at 94 miles from Key West.

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The southern shore of the island has some very nice beaches.

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The West Martello Tower, a fortress built in the 1860’s, is used by the Key West Garden Club.  It is planted with native and exotic trees and plants. 

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Another delightful place was the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, a 5,000 square-foot  glass domed tropical butterfly habitat.

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Ernest Hemingway made his home on Key West from 1931 until 1940 .  His home is a Spanish Colonial-style mansion built in 1931.

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We had a wonderful tour given by a very energetic docent.  As popular as the author is, his cats are just as famous.   There are more than 40 six-toed cats that still live in the house and on the property.  They are descendants of a cat given to Hemingway by a sea captain. 

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Hemingway’s writing studio was upstairs in the carriage house.

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This fountain spills water over the edge of the jug and the cats like to drink from it.

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Can you see 6 toes?

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Key West feels like a Caribbean island.  We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were still in the United States.

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Do you notice a theme here?

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DSC06741 C    Key West is a great destination or

side trip if you are visiting southern Florida.

Posted in Florida, Key West, United States | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Villa Vizcaya – A Treasure in South Florida

Villa Vizcaya is an Italian style villa overlooking Biscayne Bay.  It was the winter residence of the Chicago industrialist, James Deering, of International Harvester Co.  The mansion was built in two years (1914-1916).  1000 workers were hired for the labor which represented 10% of Miami’s entire population at the time! 

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Vizcaya seems out of place in Miami but, as the brochure points out, the inclusion of open-air rooms and courtyard, native plants and local materials connect the estate with its location.  The mansion was built to look old, as if a family had lived in it for centuries.  James Deering died in 1925 and the estate passed to relatives.  After hurricane damage and other costs, surrounding parcels and outer gardens were sold.  In 1952 Miami-Dade County acquired the estate. The villa is now a museum that features European decorative art and furnishings. 

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The estate originally consisted of 180 acres of Mangrove swamps and dense tropical forest.  Deering, an early environmentalist, planned the estate’s development to run along the shore of the bay to conserve the forests.  The 10 acres of formal Italianate Renaissance gardens were completed in 1922.  50 acres remain of the original estate.

A well done audio tour is available to guide visitors through the gardens and the house.  Unfortunately no photos were allowed in the house.

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The first garden we walked through was the Orchidarium which led us to the back of the house, which is really the front, facing Biscayne Bay.

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The most unique feature at Vizcaya is “The Barge”.  This island, built in the shape of a boat, protects the shore and east terrace from waves. 

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The Tea House

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We wandered through small and large gardens, past hedges, walls, and pools.  There are fountains and sculptures from Italy and France.  Though the garden was designed in a European tradition, it was planted with sub-tropic and native plants that thrive in the South Florida climate. 

The Secret Garden is in one corner of the formal gardens. It was built to grow orchids but there was too much sun here so those plants were moved to the north side of the house.

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This is the terrace and south side of the mansion.  The formal gardens fan out from this side of the house.  

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The Fountain Garden

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The Garden Mound is a raised patio with a “Casino”, a garden pavilion.  This is the ceiling of the open air section.

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DSC06658 C  Small ornate rooms were on each end.

The stairs on the back of the casino lead down to the Mangrove swamp.  There used to be elaborate lagoons for Mr. Deering’s guests to paddle through.

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Grottos are lined with shells and small colorful stones.

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Every garden needs a bit of whimsy.

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And some wild life!

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Posted in Florida, MIami, United States | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments