There are two ways For visitors to appreciate the mystique of the Florida Keys:
1) Get wet. 2) Get real.
The first is a familiar refrain for regular visitors to "America's Caribbean," so called for reasons of geography, weather, and laid-back attitudes. Underwater exploration, fishing, and boating are dominant pastimes here, and many vacationers are content to spend their days in, on, and around the water
But many lovers of the Keys look beyond the scenic surface of dear Gulf and Atlantic waters and sunlit sky to discover another aspect of the Keys: It is a very real place.
This is a Florida with neither cartoon characters, ersatz movie studios, nor mini-replicas of foreign countries.
It is, however, a Florida of Pulitzer Prize-winning writers (ten have lived in the Keys); of acclaimed and locally-produced theater; of wildlife unique to these islands (like tiny Key deer); of the continental United States's only living coral reef; and of islands so narrow you can watch the sun rise over the Atlantic and, steps away, set over the Gulf of Mexico.
Residents of the Keys, in fact, call themselves "Conchs" (pronounced "konks") as a way to distinguish themselves from other Floridians. This is a constituency, remember, that undertook a tongue-in-cheek "insurrection" against the U.S. Border Patrol in 1982 -- a day commemorated each April 23 with the very Keys-like motto: "We seceded where others failed."
Hemingway's Penny, Hearst's War, and Other Key Stories
Today the appeal of the Keys is divided equally between the lure of the water and the islands' unique spirit and culture. This is a place, after all, where locals need little encouragement to tell stories about themselves and their predecessors -- stories that convey how the contemporary Key experience relies mightily on the islands' rich past.
For instance, many visitors know that Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) lived and worked in Key West for many years, producing some of his greatest works, including A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
But not many know this story: When Hemingway was told that the pool at his house would cost $20,000, he took a penny from his pocket and tossed it on the ground, exclaiming, "Here, take the last penny I've got." His wife, Pauline, had the penny embedded in cement at the head of the pool. Visitors can see it there today at what is now the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum.
The story of Henry Flagler's Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway, the Overseas Railway (which was washed away by a historic hurricane in 1935 and replaced by the new Overseas Highway in 1938), is the basis for many tales. Some are being retold at a new museum chronicling the history of the railway's development on tiny Pigeon Key, an island that once served as a base camp for the development of the spectacular rail line that linked the island chain to the Florida mainland.
Nestled beneath the old Seven Mile Bridge, about 2.5 miles southwest of popular Marathon, the Pigeon Key Museum displays a collection of items that railway workers left behind, from medicine bottles to engineering plans.
Visitors to the Keys this winter and much of next year will be able to be part of one of the most enduring sagas in American history: The February 15, 1998, centenary of the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine.
That story goes like this: Key West was the last port-of-call for the Maine before she sailed to Havana, Cuba, on January 24, 1898. …