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Florida's Key West: Close to Perfect, Far From Normal

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A pelican on the pier at Higgs Beach in Key West, Florida.
A pelican on the pier at Higgs Beach in Key West, Florida.

If you're dreaming of a white Christmas, don't go to Key West.

As winter spreads over the northern United States, tourists and retired "snowbirds" are heading south for warmer weather. Key West, Florida, with its tropical weather, white sand beaches, and lively nightlife, is a popular escape. The island's motto is "close to perfect" and "far from normal."

Key West is part of the Florida Keys, a string of tropical islands off the southern tip of Florida. It is about a three-hour drive or 30 minute flight from Miami. Key West is the end of the road, in geography and in spirit. It is connected the mainland of the United States by a series of bridges called the Overseas Highway.

A pelican on the pier at Higgs Beach in Key West, Florida.
A pelican on the pier at Higgs Beach in Key West, Florida.

The island is known for its liberal and tolerant culture. It has long attracted artists and writers, along with people who want to escape mainstream American culture.

Conch Republic

The local people, known as "conchs", have a spirit of independence. A conch is a type of sea shell that has become a symbol of the Florida Keys.

In 1982, the U.S. government set up a roadblock on the Overseas Highway. Federal police stopped cars, looking for drugs and illegal immigrants. Island residents were angry because the roadblock made travel difficult and hurt tourism.

To protest, the Florida Keys declared their "independence" on April 23, 1982. Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow declared himself the prime minister of the new Conch Republic. Part joke and part protest, Wardlow declared "war" on the United States. He surrendered after one minute.

The flag of the Conch Republic can be seen all over the Florida Keys
The flag of the Conch Republic can be seen all over the Florida Keys

Today, the flag of the Conch Republic flies all over the Florida Keys next to the American flag. Although they were never independent, residents of the Florida Keys celebrate their "independence day" every April 23rd.

The roadblock is gone.

Trouble in Paradise

Key West might seem like paradise, but it has problems like anywhere else. "This is truly the end of the road," local resident Katherine Baxter said. "People come here to get away from things." Baxter, a case manager at the local hospital, sees a side of Key West that tourists rarely see.

Drug and alcohol abuse are serious problems here. Monroe County, where Key West is located, has the highest suicide rate in Florida.

The extremely high cost of housing has left some people homeless. A modest one-story house here can easily sell for $1 million. But most of the jobs in Key West are low-paying jobs in hotels and restaurants. Some longtime residents are leaving the island, fed up with drunk tourists, low wages, and high living costs.

Ernest Hemingway House

Key West's most famous resident was the brilliant but troubled writer Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway is one of the most important American writers of the 20th century. Ernest and his wife, Pauline, lived in Key West from 1931 to 1939. The house, a Spanish style mansion, was a wedding gift from Pauline's father. In this house, Hemingway wrote some of his most famous stories, including "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "To Have and Have Not."

The Ernest Hemingway House
The Ernest Hemingway House

Hemingway had a cat with six toes named Snow White. Today, about 50 of Snow White's descendants live on the grounds of the Hemingway house. Some of the cats have six toes.

Key Lime Pie

No trip to Key West is complete without trying its famous dessert: Key lime pie. Key limes, which grow in Florida, are smaller less sweet than Persian limes.

Key lime pie is made with Key lime juice, egg yolks, and condensed milk on a graham cracker crust. The dessert is topped with cream made from egg whites.

Kermit's Key lime pie
Kermit's Key lime pie

These days it is popular to serve Key lime pie frozen on a stick, dipped in chocolate. You can find Key lime pie just about anywhere in the Florida Keys. Kermit's Key Lime Pie Shoppe on Elizabeth Street is the most famous.

In 2006, the Florida state legislature named Key lime pie the official pie of Florida.

Southernmost Point

A short walk from the Ernest Hemingway house is the most photographed site in Key West. It is a marker showing the southernmost point in the United States. Tourists wait in long lines to take pictures in front the monument. It reads "90 miles to Cuba."

In fact, Key West is closer to Havana than Miami. The Southernmost Point reminds Americans that Cuba is so close, but so far away. There have been no direct transport connections between Key West and Cuba since the 1950s.

A marker claiming to be the southernmost point in the continental United States
A marker claiming to be the southernmost point in the continental United States

Relations between the U.S. and Cuba have improved in recent months. In March, the U.S. government gave permits to four companies to run ferries from Key West to Havana. But ferry service cannot start until new customs and immigration facilities are built.

For now, the Southernmost Point of Key West is as close as most Americans can get to Cuba.

[music: Dire Straits 'The Sultan of Swing']

Thank you good night and now it's time to go home

And he makes it fast with just one more thing

We are the sultans

We are the sultans of swing

I'm Jonathan Evans.

A holiday display at Schooner Wharf in Key West, Florida
A holiday display at Schooner Wharf in Key West, Florida

Adam Brock wrote and produced this story for VOA Learning English. Kathleen Struck was the editor.

Words in This Story

snowbird - n. a northerner who moves to a warmer southern state in the winter

motto - n. a short sentence or phrase that expresses a rule guiding the behavior of a particular person or group

tolerant - adj. willing to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own

mainstream - adj. the thoughts, beliefs, and choices that are accepted by the largest number of people

snail - n. a small animal that lives in a shell that it carries on its back, that moves very slowly, and that can live in water or on land

roadblock - n. a place where police or military officers stop drivers especially in order to examine vehicles

modest - adj. simple, not fancy

fed up with - phrasal verb. to be angry about something

brilliant - adj. showing extreme intelligence : extremely clever

mansion - n. a large and impressive house : the large house of a wealthy person

descendent - n. a plant or animal that is related to a particular plant or animal that lived long ago

egg yolk - n. the yellow part in the center of an egg

graham cracker - n. a popular American snack food made with bleached flour

ferry - n. to carry or move (someone or something) on a vehicle (such as a boat or a car) usually for a short distance between two places

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