Key West is beguiling. It’s an island about four miles long and hardly a mile wide. The southern tip is the Old Town, a gridiron of the most charming wood-framed clapboard houses with verandas, ornate woodwork they call gingerbread, and often a rooftop balcony belvedere they call a “widow’s walk”.
The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum [http://www.hemingwayhome.com], was the writer’s home from 1931 to 1939 where he wrote ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro’ (1936) and To Have And Have Not (1937). Built in 1851, the house became one of the first on the island with indoor plumbing supplied by rainwater, was certainly the first with an upstairs plumbed bathroom and in the 1930s had the only swimming pool within a hundred miles, a huge and impractical installation. The place is still inhabited by descendants of the polydactyl cats which Ernest Hemingway kept.
Directly opposite the Hemingway home is the Key West Lighthouse [http://www.kwahs.org/visit/lighthouse-keepers-quarters], completed in 1848 after its predecessor was destroyed by a hurricane, and heightened by twenty feet in 1894 because of encroaching buildings and trees. It was decommissioned in 1969 and now serves as a museum and vantage point.
Also on Whitehead Street is the Audubon House and Tropical Gardens [http://audubonhouse.com], commemorating the 1832 visit of the famous ornithologist John James Audubon (1785-1851). The so-called Geiger Tree in the front garden features in the Birds of America image of the white-crowned pigeon.
Other historic sites in the Old Town include the former Old Post Office & Custom House (1891) [http://www.kwahs.org/visit/custom-house], which now houses the Key West Museum of Art & History, and the Richard Peacon House (c1885), an example of the distinctive American octagon house, a mid-nineteenth century device for increasing indoor floor-area in a narrow rectangular urban plot.
Within the naval base Fort Zachary Taylor (1845) is the historic Truman Annex or Winter White House [http://www.trumanlittlewhitehouse.com], built as officers’ quarters in 1890, where the post-war President Harry S Truman stayed on eleven separate visits for a total of 175 days during his presidency from 1945 to 1952. He was the first president to take full advantage of modern communications to work remotely from Washington DC.
The Mel Fisher Museum [http://www.melfisher.org] on Greene Street illustrates aspects of Keys history which would be otherwise invisible. Mel Fisher (1922-1998) was a diver and treasure hunter who, after years of persistence, located the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish treasure galleon that sank off the Florida coast in 1622. Mel Fisher identified the site in July 1985 and recovered a breath-taking array of gold, silver and emeralds.
On Christmas Eve I watched the sunset from Mallory Square – contemplating the fact that my Sheffield friends would at the same moment be trudging between pubs in the cold and wet.
There’s a lot to be said for Christmas in a T-shirt.