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Hemingway Adventure

Key West, Florida (third day)

Key West, Florida, USA 
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Street life in Key West is never quite what you'd expect. Self-expression is positively encouraged in the Conch Republic.
Michael Palin - Hemingway AdventureTo clear my head I walk west down Whitehead Street, and find myself in a Hemingway-free zone of gracious, well-restored nineteenth-century timber and clapboard houses, many of which bear plaques indicating that they were built by wreckers and spongers. Ships regularly went aground on the coral reef and the opportunist seamen of Key West made a considerable living from salvaging the wrecks. That’s when they weren’t sponging, I mean, sponge-fishing.

Number 305 Whitehead is a pretty, balconied and balustraded building called ‘“Wrecker” Johnson’s House’, built entirely from the wood of submerged ships. Further down is the finest house on the street, the Geiger or Audubon house, saved from demolition in 1958 and now immaculately restored to its neo-classical glory with wide, shady balconies to catch the breeze, and inside a considerable number of bits and pieces, like a fine set of Chinese porcelain, that never made it past the reef.

Key West is that rare thing in the USA, a truly walkable city. The streets are mostly tree-lined and shady and in a short distance you can ring the changes from tourists and bars on Duval Street, to quiet backstreets with soothing names like Angela and Petronia. The trouble is that Key West is on the same latitude as Mecca and it can get very hot.

Which is why I end up talking to the local mayor, Wilhemina Harvey, at the end of the day, when the temperature is down to the low 90s and we can see the town from an air-conditioned car. Mayor Harvey has ruled Monroe County (which includes Key West and beyond) with charm, humour and doubtless, a rod of iron, since 1980. She’s eighty-seven and not planning to retire. She’s a social liberal, very popular with the gay community, she tells me. As this comprises over a third of Key West’s 25,000 permanent residents, she should be there well into the next millennium.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Hemingway Adventure
  • Chapter: Key West, Florida (third day)
  • Country/sea: USA
  • Place: Key West, Florida
  • Book page no: 144

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