More interesting to me was a small museum at the entrance which brings Harry to life as a very real person. For example, it describes the lively poker games and “loud shirt” contests he enjoyed with staff members. It also reports that Harry insisted he drank an early morning “shot of bourbon followed by a large glass of fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice” on the advice of his doctor.
Another small but interesting museum worth a visit is in the East Martello tower, one of four red brick forts that served as a coastal defense in the mid-19th century. Its hodge-podge collection traces the role of pirates, sponging, cigar making and treasure hunting in Key West’s eclectic past.
The search for treasure is dramatically depicted in two other museums. The Mel Fisher Treasure Museum recounts the story of that intrepid fortune hunter. He spent 16 years seeking the wreck of Spanish galleons that sank in 1622 off the coast of Key West during a ferocious hurricane. The $450 million treasure included more than 40 tons of gold and silver as well as emeralds, Chinese porcelain and other precious artifacts. To me, the story of Mel Fisher’s search for the valuable cache is as fascinating as the exhibits themselves.
The Shipwreck Treasures Museum tells the intriguing story of Key West “wreckers” with a combination of exhibits, audio-visual displays and a live presentation. Wrecking and salvage — rescuing passengers, then recovering cargoes of ships that sunk following collisions with treacherous offshore reefs — was the foundation of Key West’s economy throughout the 19th century. For a time, that enterprise made the tiny island the richest city per capita in the United States.
Storytellers in period costumes relate this historical tidbit, interspersing fascinating facts with humor as corny as it is colorful. As part of his patter, a guide sought to convince me that I would have made a good diver, until I learned they had to hold their breath under water for up to five minutes.
A little-known gem overlooked by many visitors to Key West is Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden. Tucked away at the end of a tiny lane, it’s a quiet oasis of lush tropical greenery only steps from the rushed, raucous action along Duval Street.
Quiet, that is, except for the loud squawking, and impressive talking, of over two dozen parrots. Conceding that she’s “passionate about parrots,” Nancy knows the likes (ham with grits, sweet potatoes, peanut butter), dislikes (people food, quality nutrition) and idiosyncrasies (baths, quiet days) of each bird. The one acre setting is perfect for those seeking a temporary respite from the sometimes frantic frivolity elsewhere in Key West.
If you go
For information about Key West, call (800) 352-5397 or log onto fla-keys.com.