Inside Key West Spring Break

Depending on your personal perspective and proclivities, this post may be taken as either an invitation or a warning, so read and heed or disregard at your own risk. For better or worse, the Spring Break season opens in Key West (and Florida in general) in early March. Although Spring Break is a nation-wide phenomenon, some useful Florida-specific kickoff dates include March 3 for the University of Florida, the University of Central Florida, Florida Memorial University, Florida Southern College, and Florida Gulf Coast University. Florida State University, the University of Miami, and the University of South Florida all let out on March 10, while Florida Keys Community College goes on break March 24.

There it is – a solid month of hyped-up college students hitting the island looking for sun, sand, sex, and altered states of consciousness, in no particular order. Once considered too isolated to compete with traditional northern Florida Spring Break sites like Daytona Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Fort Meyers, Key West has drawn today’s more travel-ready Spring Breakers for a number of years already. It doesn’t hurt that Key West knows how to party no matter what the season, prompting some to observe that “It’s always Spring Break in Key West.” Fortunately (or unfortunately?) the period between March and May is the best time to visit Key West. Winter crowds thin out, hotel rates go down, and the weather is still very nicely set in the 70s and 80s. Skies are generally clear, and the temperature trend is upward. Whether you are a college student or not, spring is an inviting time to be in the Keys.

If you are a member of the Spring Break set, here are a few general Key West tips to help guide your planning. First of all, Key West is known for its quirky and fun-loving sensibility and tolerance for diversity, as well as for boisterous good times. It is no problem to bust loose a bit, as long as you get along with the locals. Try to pick up on the vibe and fit in rather than taking over. The place is laid back and chill is the way to play it. There will be plenty of opportunities to turn up the craziness as the night goes on, and there are crowds of locals who are ready, willing, and able to party with the best of them if you find the right spots.

Next, there are a couple of beaches that are the best places for large groups of people to fit in, hang out, play games, and get in the water safely. Smathers Beach draws the majority of Breakers, and the beach party goes on until the sun goes down. Vendors on the beach can supply everything needed for a good time, from beer to lemonade, jet skis to parasails, and more. Smather’s Beach is free and located directly across from the airport and the Sheraton Suites, a Key West hotel popular with students. A mellower beach spot is Fort Zachary Taylor, a State Park and picnic grounds located in Old Town Key West. There is a small admission fee, but reentry is allowed, and the natural setting and scenic beauty of the beach make it ideal for a relaxing day in the warm sun and soothing water after a hard night out.

Something to be aware of with all Key West beaches is the fact that open containers are not allowed, and the city will issue tickets for infractions. Also, there are no nude beaches in Key West, and there are often families with children around, so it is best to keep minimally covered. Finally, the beaches close at 11 pm and they are regularly patrolled, so it is a good idea to pack up shortly after sunset and take the party to Duval Street, where you can check out a mile and a quarter of shops, boutiques, galleries and a huge selection of bars and nightclubs.

For visitors who are not in Spring Break mode, the best advice is to either reschedule your trip or go with the flow and enjoy the lively, youthful atmosphere. It is actually not that bad, or anyway not that much different than most of the other exuberant, festive occasions encountered in Key West. In fact, Spring Break on the island has actually calmed down a bit, as indicated in a Miami Herald article that noted efforts by Key West City Commissioners to bring back Spring Break Court. Canceled in recent years due to diminishing need for its services, the court had been convened annually from 1991 to 2007 in order to provide an alternative venue for dealing efficiently with minor offenses such as underage drinking, using false ID, and public urination.

Young or old, student or drop-out, gay or straight, no matter what your thing is, it is always going to be more fun to do your thing in Key West. So the best advice for Spring Break season is to come on down, get in the island groove, and join the party that only Key West can put on.

Inside the One Race Cuban-American Art Exchange

Next weekend, the Key West art community will celebrate a historic Cuban-American art exchange that will bridge a 50-year gap between Key West and it’s 90-mile distant neighboring island. Thursday through Saturday, February 20-22, eleven of Cuba’s leading contemporary artists will be in Key West to make and install original pieces at a variety of local venues in a show entitled “One Race, The Human Race / Una Raza, La Raza Humana”.

The event kicked off in Havana on January 17 when Cuba’s prestigious Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes mounted a solo exhibition of work by Cuban-American folk artist Mario Sanchez (1908-2005).  The museum offered 30 intaglio prints by Sanchez, a second-generation American who was best known for producing painted bas-relief carvings that captured his views of Key West life in the early 1900s. Sanchez’s work celebrated the relatively harmonious gender, race, and religious relations that prevailed on the island, and themes of diversity, openness, and humor personify his work.

The visiting artists will show contemporary work generated from inspirations provided by these same themes. Nearly 120 pieces will be presented in a series of unveilings and other events scheduled for 5 different Old Town Key West venues. Participating partners and organizations include the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, and the Oldest House & Garden Museum.

The Key West portions of the event will open on Tuesday, February 18 at the Tropic Cinema with a 6:30 pm screening and discussion of Unfinished Spaces, a film about Cuba’s famous National Art Schools. The following Thursday, February 20, The Studios of Key West at 600 White Street will present the work of Manual Mendive, a world-renowned sculptor and painter born in Havana in 1944 and one of Cuba’s most acclaimed artists. Mendive will debut performance art featuring body-painted dancers at 7 pm.

Also showing at The Studios will be the work of Roberto Fabelo, Sandra Ramos, and Rocio Garcia. Fabelo was born in 1950 in Guáimaro, Camagüey, and is highly regarded as a prolific painter, sculptor, and illustrator, particularly of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Ramos (Havana, 1969) was among the first artists to expose the harsh realities of Cuban life, using paintings and drawings to address issues of racism, poverty, and mass migration. Rocio Garcia (Santa Clara, Las Villas, 1955) produces courageous and provocative cartoon-inspired work that builds stories around issues of human intimacy and sexuality.

On Friday the 21st, the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, in the Gato Building at 1100 Simonton Street, will host Rubén Alpízar and Reinerio Tamayo. Alpizar (Santiago de Cuba, 1965) is a sculptor who makes paintings and sculpture based on historical references to, and sometimes including, figures such as Hieronymous Bosch, Leonardo da Vinci, John Lennon, and Andy Warhol. Reynerio Tamayo (Niquero, 1968) is a contemporary caricaturist who uses painting and sculpture to offer pointed and comic commentary on art and politics. Tamayo is also known for work inspired by baseball, a favorite sport in both Cuba and Key West.

Also on Friday, the work of The Merger will appear at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. The Merger is a collective of sculptors (Mario Gonzalez, Havana, 1969; Niels Moleiro, Havana, 1970; Alain Pino, Camagüey, 1974) who use Plexiglass, neon, stainless steel, and other materials to produce large-scale, pop-art inspired objects with a satirical edge.

On Saturday, February 22nd, the Oldest House & Garden Museum at 322 Duval will present a project by Miami-based Cuban-American artist Xavier Cortada. Cortada produces work that addresses themes of multiculturalism and the environment. For the Oldest House, Cortada will reference Cuba and Key West’s shared heritage via the native flowers which Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon would have encountered on his expedition to the region he would name “La Floridita”. Visitors may send a drawing or message to a child in Cuba, and take home packets of native seeds to create flower gardens dedicated to them.

Saturday will also bring the conclusion of this cultural celebration with the 6 pm debut of Sandra Ramos’ massive sculpture “The Bridge” at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Large enough for people to walk across, the sculpture represents the Florida Straits crossing from Cuba to Key West. The debut will include multicultural dance performances incorporating the piece and symbolically reconnecting the two islands and their cultures.

Inside the Harry S. Truman Little White House

American history buffs and anyone interested in the lives of US presidents or tales of old Key West will want to spend an afternoon visiting the Harry S. Truman Little White House at 111 Front Street in Key West. Originally constructed in 1890 on the island’s western shoreline, the building was the first officer’s quarters on the Key West Naval Station. As the years went by, the building hosted many interesting visitors and important events. Now, it has been restored to appear as it was in 1949 when President Harry S. Truman was using it as an escape from the pressures of Washington DC, much as US presidents now use the Camp David retreat.

The house was sited directly on the waterfront when it was built, but subsequent creation of more land by filling to the seaward, and construction of more buildings on the seaward side resulted in the building’s setting as it appears today. It began life as a wooden duplex that housed two dwelling spaces: Quarters A for the Naval base commandant and Quarters B for the paymaster. In 1911, the building was converted into a single-family dwelling dedicated solely as housing for the commandant, and fill was added to extend the land in front of the house.

William Howard Taft became the first president to visit the house when he arrived in Key West in 1912 via Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad en route to inspecting ongoing construction at the Panama Canal. A few years later, during World War 1, Thomas Edison came down to Key West to give his service to the war effort, and lived in the house for six months while completing 41 new weapons. The house continued to serve as US Command Headquarters through World War II.

After the close of World War Two, in November of 1946, President Harry S Truman had spent 19 months in office, all of it during wartime, and was physically exhausted. Ordered by presidential doctor Wallace Graham to take a rest in a warm place, Truman immediately headed for Key West, arriving on November 17th. After resting for a week, he left on the 23rd, promising to return whenever he needed to rest. It was not long before he did return, from March 12th to the 19th in the spring of 1947. This was the beginning of a pattern that lead to 9 more visits to the island, always around November-December and March-April.

When technological advances made it possible for the President to communicate with multiple world or political leaders at one time, or summon staff from Washington in a matter of only 3 hours by air, Truman recognized that wherever the President was, the White House was. Cabinet members and foreign officials were regular visitors for fishing trips and poker games during Truman’s visits. President Truman also conducted many important items of presidential business in Key West, and documents issued from the Little White House bore the letterhead of The White House, US Naval Station, Key West, Florida. In the end, Truman visited Key West 11 times while in office and spent 175 days of his presidency in the house.

Later presidents including Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton also made use of the Little White House, and the house stayed in service as the Naval Station commandant’s quarters until the submarine base closed in March of 1974 when the Navy made the transition from diesel to nuclear submarines. The Little White House was added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 12 of 1974, and today, the building is a small museum and tourist destination filled with original furnishings and presidential memorabilia from the Truman era. The Little White House is Florida’s only presidential site, and after undergoing a $1 million dollar restoration completed in 2009 for the celebration of Truman’s 125th birthday, it is definitely one Key West’s must-see museums.


Inside Key West Aquarium

Key West is home to one of Florida’s oldest aquariums, the Key West Aquarium. The only public aquarium in Key West, it was built between 1932 and 1934 during the Great Depression. The original Key West Aquarium project was the vision of Dr. Robert O. Van Deusen, a marine biologist and director of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park Aquarium. When the federal government took over the city’s charter during those hard economic times, Dr. Van Deusen was one of the promoters who helped convince the government of the idea that the island would make a good tourist destination. The Works Progress Administration undertook the building of the aquarium, along with many of the island’s other historic tourist attractions. These projects provided many much-needed jobs to Key West locals.

The Key West Aquarium was the first aquarium to use an open-air design that allowed natural sunlight into the concrete marine display pools. It was also one of the largest aquariums of its time. The project was completed in two years, and the aquarium opened to the public on February 18, 1935, with admission set at 15 cents for adults and 5 cents for children. It was hoped that the aquarium would draw thousands of visitors to Key West.

Unfortunately, only seven months after the opening, on Labor Day of 1935, a hurricane struck the middle keys and destroyed the Overseas Railroad. The railroad was the only way to reach Key West other than by boat, and with the tourist flow cut-off, there was no hope of success for the Key West Attraction. The aquarium was shut down, and on May 8, 1943 the US Government leased it to the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard for use as an indoor rifle range. For this purpose, all of the displays were torn down or filled in to make a level surface area. Three years later, in June of 1946, the government returned the aquarium to the city of Key West. Restored and reopened, it became one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

Now, as the oldest attraction on the island, the Key West Aquarium retains the small, intimate feel of a historic building, but offers a wide range of interesting displays. A roof has been added to cut down on algae growth in the tanks, and modern technology has replaced sunlight for providing illumination to the exhibits. A 50,000-gallon tank houses a variety of tropical fish and game fish, and the Atlantic Shores exhibit presents a view of a near-shore mangrove environment. Visitors can see barracuda, grouper, moray eels, parrotfish, tarpon, tropical fish, and much more. A touch tank allows children to interact with harmless creatures of the shallow waters and tide pools, and daily tours that highlight dramatic feedings of barracudas, sea turtles, sharks, and stingrays are an exciting attraction for all ages.

The Key West Aquarium, while modest in size, is truly one of the island’s treasures. It also plays an important role in the rescue of injured and stranded sea turtles, working with the Turtle Hospital and the state agencies, universities and marine parks that make up the Florida Sea Turtle Stranding Network.  The aquarium is an important resource in the efforts to protect the endangered marine ecosystems of the Florida Keys. It is interesting in many ways, and a visit is a very worthwhile and enjoyable experience for people of all ages.