Key West, Florida
Sight: As I climb the last step, my heart starts to race a little bit. Although I had seen the view only moments before on ground level, I know that it is going to look entirely different from high atop the Key West Lighthouse. Eighty-eight steps to climb and already I have gotten my full money’s worth from my admission ticket with the spectacular vista in front of me. My boyfriend and I joke that this would have been the perfect spot for him to have proposed, as not only were there no other people around, but it would have been the most memorable of stories. Having toured it prior to coming to the lighthouse, I am delighted to be able to immediately spot the Hemingway House, including the pool that Hemingway’s second wife had installed much to his consternation when he saw the bill (more than double the cost of the house). I also sight our cruise ship which had brought us to the most southern of the Florida Keys earlier that morning. I think to myself how much our ship and its floating neighbor look like giant monsters about to wreak havoc on this tiny island. I see endless vistas of clear blue water that just continues on and off into the horizon (or eventually to Cuba).
Taste: With the first bite I take of my “original Sloppy Joe sandwich,” I can see why Sloppy Joe’s restaurant was featured in Patricia Schultz’s famous book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die. Although I immediately taste the succulent ground beef that has been cooked to perfection in a sweet and aromatic tomato sauce, it is the spices that give it its distinct yet alluring flavor. Unsure of what they may be, but not too curious to cease all eating, I continue to take a second bite. All the while my boyfriend is about to polish off his sandwich entirely.
“Good?” I ask.
“You bet” he tells me.
Because the sandwich isn’t enough of a sinful pleasure for our taste buds, we opt for a sweet finish, the quintessential summer dessert that originated in the late 19th century in Key West. Although I usually experience mind numbing pain due to sensitive teeth when eating sweets of any kind (especially the tart kind), the pain is worth it for there is no better dessert on such a hot day than a slice of refreshing key lime pie.
Contrary to the more common Persian ‘green’ lime found in American supermarkets, a key lime is actually bright yellow when ripe. It’s smaller, seedier, and features a much stronger aroma than the Persian lime and is naturalized throughout the keys.
I’m not usually a fan of pie, but there’s something about a meringue topping that wins me over every time. You’re having a bad day, have some meringue. It’s light, fluffy, and an instant mood (and taste) pleaser. Later that day in a shop, I find a book that mentions how the traditional conch versopm for key lime pie is made with egg whites instead of egg yolks and that one never uses green food coloring when making the dessert. Not only the look, but the taste would also not be the same.
Smell: When I was a little girl, every summer my mom, brother and I would spend the day with family friends who had a beach house in Ocean City, New Jersey. It wasn’t a long drive from Philadelphia, but I always knew when we were close because all of a sudden you would want to roll down your window and smell the salt water air.
Our day in Key West I purposely have us wake up early and grab a quick breakfast so I can sit out on deck as we arrive in port. I want to see if the experience would be the same as it was all those years before. I want to breath in the fresh, crisp scent of the nautical air. Although we have been at sea for more than a day now, I think the air might smell different entering port, entering “civilization,” leaving behind the endless miles of empty ocean.
Things don’t smell much different when we dock. But as soon as we got off the ship and start walking towards Key West proper, the smell of an island summer permeates the air. There isn’t just the smell of heat and humidity. There is the smell of a bright, tropical sun beating down on our backs as we walk along Duval Street. There was the smell of tropical fruits and flowers, native only to places like Key West. When we enter a charming shop on one of the side streets that sells native wares from Cuba, a country 90 miles away from where we are, I can smell the faint trace of mojo sauce and fried plantains cooking the back.
Although I’ve always equated Key West to be a destination best suited for certain demographics (Jimmy Buffet worshipers and those who reside at a Boca Ratonesque retirement community for instance), I discover how much Key West is a destination for everyone. As a history fiend, I am fascinated to learn that in the 19th century, a woman took over her husband’s duties after he passed as lighthouse keeper, working until she was 82 and only leaving because she was forced to due to her support for the Southern states’ secession from the North. As a huge admirer of Ernest Hemingway’s writing, I am in literature ecstasy when on the tour of his house, I see the writing studio where he worked on the final draft of one of my favorite books of all time, A Farewell to Arms. I greatly enjoyed ambling along some of the side streets, imagining the characters from another Hemingway work, To Have and Have Not (that also takes places in Key West) as they went about their daily lives, long before Key West became the major tourist destination it is today.
A stop in port does not even begin to do justice to all that a major destination may offer; you may at most see some of the highlights, but still only ever skimming the surface. There is much more we could have seen and done in Key West, but for the limited time we had, we saw spectacular vistas, tasted heavenly food, and took in the smell of tropical summer.