Key West, a walk through the Village

This is a leisurely itinerary, designed to follow a busy day in the Old Town, and your walk will be broken by a slow and pleasant lunch. Head toward the southern end of Old Town, near the middle of Whitehead Street, where you will find Key West’s Bahama Village.

Bordered by Angela, Petronia, and Olivia streets, Bahama Village is an old Key West neighborhood where many descendants of the city’s earliest Bahamian settlers and West Indian slaves still live. During the 18th century the Bahamian incomers utilized their knowledge of tropical architecture and plants to help make Key West what it is today.

colors from bahama village key westFrom the outside, the neighborhood appears weather-beaten and run-down, full of small wooden homes that look as if a strong wind could blow them away. But underneath those tin roofs are walls and floors made of Dade County pine, a sturdy, almost invincible Florida hardwood.

Some of the homes are painted bright Caribbean colors of pink, blue, and green, with purple bougainvillea vines adding a further splash of color. Taking a slow morning walk through the streets, you feel as if you’ve been transported to the islands – the ones on the other side of the Gulf Stream, that is.

Little grocery stores sell Jamaican beer, Bahamian conch fritters and sweet coconut cake, while reggae and calypso music pours out from louvered windows. One of the remaining enclaves in Old Town that has not yet been gobbled up by developers, Bahama Village will probably not stay the same for much longer, so enjoy its atmosphere while it remains unspoilt.

In recent years a few art galleries specializing in Haitian and Caribbean art have opened up, and so has Blue Heaven, a casual, Caribbean-style restaurant that deserves a visit for lunch.

Located at the corner of Thomas and Petronia streets, the Greek Revival clapboard house is one the city’s best kept secrets. In former days it served as a bordello, boxing ring, and cock-fighting arena. These days, it offer picnic tables for dining in the garden underneath an enormous sapodilla tree.

The food is tropical and healthy: curried seafood, snapper tortillas, stir-fry tofu and fresh fruit pies. Mothers come with their kids who run around barefoot, and couples play Scrabble while waiting for their food.

Roosters still roam around the patio paying no mind to the rooster graveyard that sits in the corner. In the evening there are poetry readings and live music, so you might prefer to come here tonight for dinner and simply buy a snack lunch.

After lunch, walk one block south on Thomas Street to Olivia Street and turn left.


Continue on Olivia for about 8 blocks and you will come to the Key West City Cemetery (daily sunrise to sunset). Like most cemeteries in offbeat places, Key West’s is full of local history, humor and lore, and seems to demonstrate that some local citizens were determined to be as idiosyncratic in death as they were in life.

Covering 21 acres in the heart of Old Town, it is an intense maze of above-the-ground vaults (because of the high water table and soft foundation of the land), each with its own unique character. Many of the tombs are marked simply by nicknames – Bunny. Shorty, The Tailor, Mamie – rather than formal names.

Some have or had signature expressions: ‘”Call Me For Dinner”, “I Told You I Was Sick” and “The Buck Stops Here.” One offers the (presumably) tongue-in-cheek sentiment of a grieving widow: “At Least I Know Where He’s Sleeping Tonight”.

Although the cemetery was officially established in 1847, some of the graves date from before that time. Hot, glaring white, and crowded, the cemetery attracts lots of egrets, hawks and gulls who land atop the tombstones and angel statues and cry out to the clouds.

At a special memorial rest the bodies of Cubans who died during the Spanish-American War. Another memorial. with a statue of a Key Deer, pays tribute to Elfina, a favorite pet.

There are also framed photographs of some of the dead, and resting benches for visitors who like to linger. The most interesting, and infamous, tomb in the cemetery is that of Elena Hoyo Mesa, a beautiful young Cuban girl who died of tuberculosis in 1931.

The stranger-than-fiction tale of her life, or more accurately her death, is a favorite Key West ghost story. Karl von Cosel, a mad, elderly X-ray technician, was obsessed with Elena and following her death he visited her tomb daily. A few years later he dug up her body and took it home where he covered it in wax, inserted glass eyes, dressed it in a wedding gown, and made love to it every night.

Seven years later the macabre affair ended when local authorities discovered Elena and arrested von Cosel. The body was then returned to an unmarked grave in the cemetery. At the time, the judge presiding over the case, who appears to have been a very tolerant man, decided that the statute of limitations on grave-robbing had run out, and von Cosel was set free.

When he died in 1952, there was a lifesize replica of Elena buried by his side.

Tours of the cemetery are available on Saturday and Sunday at 10am and 4pm, – or at other times by appointment .

If you still have some energy after a walk through the cemetery, and feel the need for a little more literary history after visiting the Hemingway house, you might want to continue on Olivia Street until it ends at Leon Street, turn right and go 5 blocks to Duncan Street.

At 1431 Duncan Street is the modest, white frame Tennessee Williams House.

Although historically significant, the house has not been turned into a tourist attraction so it’s a little difficult to find.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, most remembered for his works A Streetcar Named Desire, Night of the Iguana. and The Glass Menagerie lived here on and off with his pet bulldogs for over 30 years.

Williams said that he wrote well everywhere, but best in Key West.

Complete with a white gazebo, swimming pool and writing studio, the home was sold by the Williams estate in 1991, with the agreement that the new owners can never use it to exploit his name.

Williams died in New York City in 1983 and, given his long association with the Keys, it is rather sad that his wish to be buried at sea ‘somewhere between Key West and Cuba’ never came true he’s buried in a city he hated, St Louis. If you need to find good rates for your stay in Key West, click here.

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