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Travels with Ernest in Key West
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
“I drink to make other people interesting.” So said Ernest Hemingway, American novelist, short-story writer and fabulous quip machine. Hemingway would produce seven novels and countless short stories and poems during his lifetime, and most of this work happened here, in Key West, Florida.
Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Paradise pulled alongside at the Mallory Square Pier this morning, docking just as the sun came up. Located at the southernmost tip of Florida, Key West is closer to Havana than it is to Miami. That proximity has influenced its traditions and culture to this day.
Key West is a cruise visitor’s paradise thanks to its size. The island itself is only four miles long by a mile wide (6 kilometres by 2 kilometres), and Duvall Street – the main bastion of shops, bars and entertainment in the city – is just 1.1 miles, or 1.8 kilometres, in length. It’s ridiculously walkable – and that’s a good thing, because there’s plenty to see and do here.
Today, we’re exploring much of that history, with visits to Ernest Hemingway House at 907 Whitehead Street; the Historic Key West Cemetery; the San Carlos Institute that celebrates Key West’s Cuban heritage; and El Meson de Pepe, which has been serving Cuban cuisine from its Mallory Square location for over 30 years.
The Importance of Being Ernest
Normally, it’d be a shame to be taking a trolley from the Mallory Square Pier to Hemingway’s house. When the temperature is pushing past 90°F with 80 percent humidity at 8:45 in the morning, however, the trolley – with its open windows and fresh sea breeze – is ideal. No wonder Hemingway drank; my body started bleeding water within five minutes of the tour beginning.
Hemingway lived at his 907 Whitehead Street residence from 1931 to 1939, though the house was in his possession up until his death in 1961. It was here that he wrote To Have and Have Not, as well as his nonfiction book, Green Hills of Africa, detailing the month-long African safari he and his wife embarked on in 1933.
It was here at this pretty, two-story colonial-style house that Hemingway produced over 70 percent of his body of work. He’d settle into his typewriter at six in the morning, preferring to continue until Noon. He produced 500 to 750 words per day in that time, which presumably left him time for more interesting pursuits.
Here’s the thing I like about Ernest – Mr. Hemingway: his writing is well-known and well-regarded throughout the world. But his exploits away from the typewriter gave him just as much fame and notoriety.
We know, for example, as much about where the man drank (and how often) as we do about the origins of his most important works of fiction and nonfiction.
We know he was so royally pissed-off when his wife installed a swimming pool in the backyard of his Key West house (at nearly the cost of the entire property) that he said, “Well, you might as well have my last cent, then.” He tossed her a single penny, and she had it cemented into the patio near the pool. It’s still there to this day. Apparently, she delighted in showing the penny to her friends, explaining to them that out of all of Hemingway’s wives, she was the only one to have taken his last cent.
Indeed, the man – or the myth surrounding the man – is equally as famous as his literary works. And after his time here in Key West, he decamped for Havana, where we’ll be tomorrow.
The Conch Republic
It’s easy to see why Hemingway liked Key West. Quirky, boozy and colourful, Key West is the anti-city in a lot of ways. I liken it a bit to Alaska: people come to the ends of the Keys for the same reasons that people go all the way North. They’re either embracing a way of life that no longer exists, or running from one that wasn’t working. Or both.
For a brief time in the 1980’s, Key West separated from the United States and became the self-proclaimed Conch Republic. Pronounced “conk”, the Conch Republic didn’t last, but Key West’s everlasting quirkiness did. The place has more bars per capita than any other city in the country, and while most are aimed at tourists, their hardcore, shit-kicking past isn’t far behind.
“I Told You I Was Sick”
I enjoy seeing cemetery’s in Europe, but it had never occurred to me to visit one in Key West. I’d never been to the Historic Key West Cemetery before, but I am glad I went.
Located in what our guide referred to as, “The Dead Center of Key West” (ha-ha-ha), you can pick up a map and do your own self-guided tour of this fascinating place, which includes a memorial to the soldiers killed in the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbour 1898 (an act that precipitated the Spanish-American War); and Los Martires de Cuba, which pays tribute to those who died attempting to free Cuba from Spanish rule in the Ten Year’s War of 1868 to 1878.
There are also some rather unique epitaphs hidden within the graveyard, including that of a local hypochondriac whose tombstone somewhat passive-aggressively reads, “I Told You I Was Sick.”
If you don’t want to do your own walking tour, full guided walks of the Cemetery are available (with advance reservations) from the Historic Florida Keys Foundation. Check them out; it’s well worth your time.
Key West: Nuevo Cuba
Our final stop prior to lunch was at the San Carlos Institute, which is dedicated to preserving Key West’s historic Cuban connections and heritage. It’s open from 10am to 5pm every day except for Mondays, and visitors are welcomed to look around.
It’s worth a visit just for the beautiful building it’s housed in, which includes tiles imported from Spain and giant, 18-foot high wooden doors shipped over from Cuba.
Although basic, the museum does a good job of illustrating the history of Cuba and Key West, particularly during the late 1800’s in the era of Jose Marti, noted writer, professor, and Cuban national hero.
While Carnival doesn’t offer a tour here, there’s no reason you can’t visit on your own. Find them at 516 Duval Street.
In keeping with the Cuban theme, we stopped for lunch at El Meson de Pepe, which features a wide assortment of traditional Cuban dishes. Try the Cayo Hueos Cuban Mix sandwich, with sugar-glazed ham, roast pork, swiss cheese, lettuce, pickles, and freshly-pressed Cuban bread; it’s excellent! Located at 410 Wall Street, approximately five minutes’ walking distance from the Mallory Square cruise pier.
Adios, Key West!
Late this afternoon, Carnival Paradise left Key West, bound for Havana. This used to happen all the time “back in the day”, but there’s something unique and special about being here onboard this classic FunShip, knowing that tomorrow we’ll arrive in a city that is very new not only for Carnival, but for Americans in general.
I’ve also fallen for Carnival Paradise. The last Fantasy-class ship ever built is also my first experience with this class of ship. Having just sailed aboard Carnival Vista to the Western Caribbean back in May, I worried that maybe I’d find this ship to be old, dated, or both.
It’s not. Instead, I’ve found a ship that is comfortable, has great passenger flow, and some of Joe Farcus’s best design choices.
Carnival Paradise is only going to get better: we learned tonight at dinner that she will undergo a multi-million-dollar refit in February 2018 that will add Carnival 2.0 enhancements like Guy’s Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina; include 98 new balcony cabins; and will see the complete refurbishment of every single one of Carnival Paradise’s staterooms and suites.
At the end of her second decade in service, Carnival Paradise may just get a brand-new lease on life, becoming the ideal ship to cruise to Cuba. Bigger isn’t always better, and Carnival’s Fantasy Class has proved for nearly three decades now that it is more than up to the challenge of offering a great cruise vacation at a price that’s not going to break the bank.
Our Voyage Report from onboard Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Paradise in Cuba continues tomorrow as we arrive in Havana, Cuba. Follow along with our latest cruise adventures on Twitter: @deckchairblog.
Carnival Paradise - To Cuba from Tampa
|Monday, August 14, 2017||Tampa, Florida||Embark||4:00pm|
|Tuesday, August 15||At Sea|
|Wednesday, August 16||Key West, Florida||8:00am||5:00pm|
|Thursday, August 17||Havana, Cuba||8:00am||Overnight|
|Friday, August 18||Havana, Cuba / At Sea||6:00am|
|Saturday, August 19||Tampa, Florida||8:00am||Disembark|
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