This island off Florida has charmed visitors and turned some of them into long-time residents. We are not surprised at all

We drive over three-and-a-half hours to cover the 260 km from Miami to Key West in Florida.. The highway is a scenic route that cuts through the famed Miami everglades, bridges, the ocean and a string of islands. Small wonder this stretch of the famed US Highway 1 is called ‘The Highway That Goes To The Sea’. The end of the highway, Mile 0, is quite a famous landmark and we join the throng of tourists taking photographs of themselves beside the signboard.

Like many other historic towns, Key West is divided into an old town and a new town. The old town has a strong European feel with old mansions on either side of tree-lined streets. It is almost as if we were transported to older times. This feeling is only reinforced when we encounter free-range hens and chickens wandering all over the payment.

The town has charmed visitors over the years and got some of them to become long-time residents as well. One of our first destinations on reaching the town is the house of Ernest Hemingway — one of the town’s most famous residents. It is easy to imagine how he would have been inspired to write in such a picturesque town, which inspired other writers such as Tennessee Williams as well. The house was originally built in the mid-19th Century but was occupied by Hemingway in the 1930s and is now open to the public. Much of the original furniture used by Hemingway is still on display. Forbidden to ‘human’ visitors, the chairs and beds are, nevertheless, used by the star attractions of the house — polydactyl cats (cats with more than five toes). These cats are everywhere — from the ticket counter to the gift shop, and are the descendants of a polydactyl cat owned by Hemingway. They are looked after by the society that maintains the house and their presence is a testimony to Hemingway’s own words that ‘One cat just leads to another’. We are tempted to spend the entire day at the house but Key West has many other offerings.

The road leads to the sea at both ends — on the one end is the concrete buoy that marks the southern-most point of Continental US and announces that Cuba is only 90 miles away. On the other end is Mallory Square — the destination of sunset parties every evening. A few hundred tourists are gathering along the pier waiting for the sun to go down. As performing artists entertain the waiting crowd, the energy is palpable. Almost on cue, the sun dips below the horizon to loud cheers. Slowly, we follow the crowd as it heads to the part of Key West that wakes up after sundown.

Duval Street is undoubtedly the entertainment capital of the town. It is lined with shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs that are open late into the night, and the air buzzes with the bustle and sound of music and loud conversations.

Our next destination is the Audobon House with its beautiful garden. It is a homage to John James Audobon — one of America’s most renowned naturalists, and showcases a number of his works. Right across the street is the famous Truman Little White House, the command headquarters of the local naval station that later became the winter White House of American President Harry Truman.

In Key West, we realise it’s impossible to ignore history. In the middle of it all, we come up against a giant Kapok tree from Mexico. The tropical tree, which can grow up to 130 feet, was sacred to the Mayans, and in Key West, it is one of the most photographed natural monuments.

As we get ready to leave, we get a sense of the allure that this island can have on people from all walks of life — artists, writers, tourists, adventurers, naturalists...

Getting there

There are flights to Key West from other parts of Florida, Georgia and Washington D.C. However, if you have time, the scenic drive from Miami is a must do

Must do

Pub crawl along Duval Street

Visit the Key West Island Bookstore, a true-blue indie bookstore.

Must see

Sunset at Mallory Square with the festive crowd