Saturday, February 28, 2009

Day One in Key West

We arrived in Key West in the early evening. Our inn was easy to find being located on the main road into the Old Town.

Like many accommodations in Key West, our Inn was a restored victorian home. Many of the lavish properties of sea captains, merchants and successful wreckers were converted into tourist accommodation under grants offered to city residents during the depression to try and boost tourism as the import economy collapsed.

This was the central building of the bed & breakfast providing the reception and the pool and open air breakfast area was off to the right.

Our room was in this building now called the Maloney House which was built in 1854 and subsequently owned by Robert Maloney who was a US Congress Representative for Massachusetts in the 1920's and enjoyed this as a vacation home. It is one of the oldest buildings in Key West and on the National Register of Historic buildings. Our room was upstairs on the right hand side of this view.

Inside our spacious room

Immediately outside our room was a large private porch/balcony, a great spot to enjoy an aperitif before going out for dinner !

Before heading to Key West we were aware that we would probably be leaving our car in the hotel carpark for the duration of our stay in the town as roads are narrow and congested.

Typical architecture of the Old Town is low-rise houses & shops built typically in the late 1800's / early 1900's with a strong Caribbean flavour. The original 'conch' houses were built of a mortar made of water, sand & lime. The lime was obtained by burning Queen Conch shells found all over the coastline. Eventually tradition turned to woodframe structures as the Florida East Coast Railway made it possible to bring large quantities of wood to the island quickly.

There were practical reasons for the style of architecture in The Keys. The sharply pointing metal roofs deflected the sun, but were also durable to hurricanes. The louvered shutters keep out the hot afternoon sun but allow the sea breezes in whilst also protecting the glazing during hurricane season. The large porches and wrap-around verandahs provide shade and keep the direct sunlight off the windows and exterior walls.

The remote location of Key West means it has a well developed airport, built on reclaimed land just outside the Old Town. With over 100 flights a day surprisingly large jets swoop low over the town on quite a frequent basis

The undisputed centre of Key West is Duval Street which runs the full length from the East to West coasts of Key West island. The street is lined with restaurants, shops, bars and inns but predominately using the historic previously residential buildings along the street. It was not uncommon to find a restaurant in what looked like a house with a few tables in the front garden and porch, a few more in the two front rooms and a few more on the upstairs verandah. It was refreshing that there was virtually no new-build in the centre of the Old Town. Indeed there are over 3000 historic buildings in the town and each business has to adapt to the old building they are in rather than tear down and build new.
This converted warehouse is Sloppy Joes. This long established bar is famous as the main hang-out spot for Ernest Hemingway when he lived in the town during the 1930's It's actually bending the truth slightly as Sloppy Joes was actually located around the corner one block off Duval St for most of the time Ernest Hemingway used to go there on a regular basis. It relocated to Duval St in 1937 by which time Hemingway was already starting to spend less time in The Keys. Nonetheless this is an extremely busy entertainment spot and certainly the heart of Key West. They frequently have bands pitch up for a live session. When we passed big Stateside country band Emerson Drive were playing but even the sidewalk was too congested you couldn't get near !

This is a brief panorama view of Duval Street at the intersection with Sloppy Joes Bar on the corner.

Heading to the West end of Duval Street you meet Mallory Square and the warehouse district. This area around the port was the hub of activity in the later 1800's and early 1900's when the town was busy receiving imports from the Caribbean and Latin America. After many years of decline the harbourside has been rejuvinated, warehouses converted into museums, restaurants and bars.

There is a statue park with many recognisable and important figures in Key Wests history.

Harry S Truman, who was the 33rd President of the US in office from 1945 to 1953. He vacationed in Key West for a great many years and indeed established the Little White House as a functioning office during his term.

Abraham Lincoln

Ernest Hemingway

Plus a sculpture recognising the importance of shipwrecks and the wreckers in the citys history.

The US Customs House, built in 1890.

Down by the waterfront were an assortment of seabirds, including this big fat pelican

And this .........? Well I'm not sure what breed this bird was although it is distinctive. I have Googled without success and am awaiting a reponse from a couple of bird websites.

A huge cruise ship, Grandeur of the Seas operated by Royal Caribbean is docked at Key West Harbour. This enormous cruise ship holds over 2400 passengers and 700 staff and these stops make a big impact on the economy of the town

David thought the Grandeur of the Seas was too big, but he would settle for this private yacht moored in the marina.

The entrance to the Truman Annexe, the guarded neighbourhood of the Navy base and Little White House.

Fountain at the entrance to the Truman Annexe

The sign providing the background to the Little White House.

The Little White House where Harry Truman presided for many summers between 1946 and 1953.

Walking back along Whitehead Street we noticed this 'house of garbage'. It seems the occupier (there were lights on inside, apparently someone lives there) is a bit of a hoarder - it was full to the rafters of junk. The house next door was listed for sale......tough economy or not I think they'll have a tough time with this guy as their neighbour !

Then we spotted this car parked across the road. It too was completely full of rubbish except for the drivers seat. Definately an interesting character lives here.....

Finally walking back we pass the Monroe County Courthouse.

We also visited the Ernest Hemingway House and the Key West Lighthouse on this day but I will post them in separate entries.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Mt St. Helens from the air

This post is somewhat out of order, but when I did the first entry for this holiday I forgot that we had taken this snapshot on Davids iPhone on the flight down to LA.

We were treated to this excellent view of Mount St. Helens in Washington as we flew from Vancouver to Los Angeles. You can clearly see the side of the volcano that was blown away in its eruption in 1980.

Driving through The Keys

We headed out of the Miami metro area and south-west towards the The Keys.

The drive is approximately 110 miles from the first Key to our destination, Key West. A succession of 45 bridges and causeways connecting the many islands, provide a large continuous road to the our destination.

This view was while sat waiting at a draw-bridge which was opening to allow a large yacht through. We were just West of Key Largo at this point although all of the islands carry a similar aspect of waterfront homes, boats, numerous canals and waterways. Some islands of course are more developed than others.

David behind the wheel

It's not long before you start feeling that boats are a more common form of transport than car.....infact in some areas it's probably true as many islands in The Keys are still boat access only having been 'missed' by the bridges when they were constructed. The dog on the back of this boat seemed happy enough to use this as a mode of transport - for most of his journey he had infact been stood right at the front watching, but only moved to the back just as we went to take the picture !

We hadn't fully appreciated until we arrived, quite how low-lying The Keys are. Infact we read once we had arrived that the highest natural point in the whole of the The Keys is 16.5ft above sea level. Hurricanes are completely devastating when they get them, although the gulf stream means most tend to pass either side rather than taking a direct hit. Along most of the drive down close to the water the homes are built on stilts with all living accommodation upstairs. They are also built of concrete rather than the traditional building material of wood.

Here we are travelling on a causeway created between two islands and you can see the old railway bridge to the right. The railway bridge was actually the first to be built in 1912 by Andrew Morrison Flagler on behalf of Florida East Coast Railway. It was developed to open up a trade route with Cuba and Latin America. The railway was eventually closed in 1968 and the railway bridges are now largely left to walkers and fishing enthusiasts.

Some sections of the railway bridges were removed to allow higher water vessels to pass through, as seen here in the distance on the left.

The drive from Miami to Key West takes approximately 3 hours.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Miami & South Beach

We have just returned from two weeks in Florida, taking the opportunity to warm up during the chilly winter months.

We began our trip by flying to Miami. We hadn't heard many good things about Miami so had decided not to stay here. However we wanted to take a quick look at South Beach with its famous art deco architecture so on our first morning we headed straight from the airport hotel to South Beach with the intention of having breakfast there before heading off to our main destination, The Keys.

Our first impression of Miami wasn't too great......a large sprawling metropolis with an infamous crime rate. Although we didn't actually photograph them the City of Miami has colour-coded their direction roadsigns from the airport to the main tourist areas to help prevent holidaymakers straying into the 'wrong' neighbourhoods. It's great that they take this kind of initiative but sad that it's even necessary.

Heading towards the highrises of Miami

We were headed for South Beach, which is a neighbourhood of Miami Beach which is in turn a separate 'city' to Miami. The drive through urban Miami isnt too endearing - a kind of Birmingham in the sun.

That said, once you get past the downtown area and onto the island that is Miami Beach the view back towards downtown is more impressive.

So we arrived on Ocean Drive, the heart of the art deco district of Miami Beach.

A massive hurricane in 1926 flattened the original largely agricultural town which had grown on Miami Beach. However demand for the location as a tourist destination was already growing so the new city to be developed sprang up as hotels & restaurants along the miles upon miles of sandy beaches. Being predominately developed in the 1930's the new South Beach area of Miami Beach became famous for it's almost entirely art deco style of architecture.

By the early 1980's the area was run-down and crime-ridden. However, a group of visionaries led by a New Yorker named Barbara Baer Capitman saw this neighbourhood as architecturally significant and worth protecting from the bulldozers which were threatening to move in.

The movement gathered public attention and support and preservationists worked together to restore building interiors and repaint exteriors of the classic South Beach buildings.

South Beach is now distinguished as the first 20th century district to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places with over 800 significant buildings protected.

This patch of greenery between buildings was a shaded open-air courtyard restaurant called The News where we stopped and had breakfast. Quite a pleasant change from Vancouver in February, sat outside in the sun, mid 20's temperatures eating breakfast !

On the East side of Ocean Drive is South Beach. This is the view South down the beach.

And this is the view North up the beach. You don't appreciate the enormity of the beach here as some marquees have been erected for an event.

David and I on South Beach.

More views along Ocean Drive

Many of the buildings along the seafront are hotels, often with open air restaurants along the pavement

This hotel The Carlyle was the centrepiece of the film The Birdcage where it was staged as a nightclub owned by Robin Williams.

More South Beach architecture

We really enjoyed our morning in South Beach and in hindsight would have happily spent a night or two there. If we are back in the South Florida area again we will probably spend a little more time exploring Miami Beach and Key Biscayne which is a State Park island just off the coast south of Miami.

However, on this trip we had to get down to Key West where our accommodation that evening was booked. We had arranged to have a convertible hire car so that we could enjoy the sun & warmth while we were traveling.

Heading off the island that is Miami Beach, you appreciate the the vast amount of waterfront the city enjoys. Numerous small private gated communities with large villas littered the waterways between Miami Beach and the city of Miami.

The various 'yachts' moored outside the homes weren't too shabby either......

Miami really is a city of such extremes......we passed terrible, poor neighbourhoods within minutes of these areas of blatant opulence.

We were glad to be heading out towards The Keys.