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Unlocking Paradise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

KEY WEST, FLA. // Only one road leads from Key Largo all the way to Key West, so you'll get wet before you get lost. For the directionally impaired, that makes things easier.

Yet the 100 or so miles between Key Largo in the north and Key West on the southwestern end cover a lot of territory. The Keys comprise 1,700 islands, after all.

Harry Truman visited 11 times between 1946 and 1952. Ernest Hemingway spent 11 years in Key West.

I had two days to take it in.

For the most part, U.S. 1 is two lanes -- sometimes highway, sometimes city street. Because it passes through every town along the way, it's tough to make good time.

But why try?

Along the Seven Mile Bridge southwest of Marathon and at plenty of places elsewhere, the view is pretty much the same: gorgeous. To the left, the turquoise waters of the Atlantic stretch to the horizon, where they meet a brilliant, cloudless azure sky. On the right, there's the Gulf of Mexico.

Tiny islands sprinkle splotches of green on the blue canvas. It's tempting to dive in and swim out to one, or at least pull over at the beach.

Just to keep paradise from becoming monotonous, a town emerges every few miles -- Islamorada, with world-class fishing and tony resorts; Marathon, with fast-food joints and strip shopping. Otherwise, it's next to impossible to distinguish Plantation Key from Indian Key, Duck Key from Grassy Key.

Then, finally, the signs announce Key West, where chickens wander freely, cats have six toes and the setting sun is reason enough to party.

Harry Truman loved Key West. Next to Independence, Mo., it was his favorite place in the world, our guide announced on a tour of the Little White House, a rambling Victorian structure where Truman spent 175 days of his presidency.

What's not to like?

Truman could escape the pressures of Washington here, relax and go fishing, take a walk, play solitaire on the upstairs verandah or get in a game of poker with friends.

"Key West has been a melting pot of society for so long that basically we weren't impressed with celebrities," said Bob Wolz, director of the Little White House, now a tourist attraction. "Ernest Hemingway was walking these streets and drinking in the bars. The citizens of Key West, for the most part, respected the president's privacy."

Truman came back again and again.

"The president would play poker and things until 11 at night, then he would go up to his bedroom with a stack of mail and work into the wee hours," Wolz said. "He really was putting in as much work as he did in D.C., but he felt he could relax here. And he didn't have the constant barrage of people knocking on his door."

Although other presidents, from William Howard Taft to Bill Clinton, used the Little White House, it is most closely identified with the Man from Independence.

In his bedroom, Truman's beige fedora rests on an upholstered green chair. The president's cane leans against it, in case he decided to go walking -- wearing a tropical shirt and khakis, his Key West uniform.

The president's room had a double bed (Bess and Margaret slept on twin beds in the room next door), a floral-patterned sofa and chair, a small desk, built-in shelves lined with history books, and access to the wide second-floor verandah.

On that porch, a deck of cards sits on a table, ready for games of solitaire. Sometimes the Trumans played double solitaire, but Bess didn't spend as much time in Key West as the president.

On the south porch below, a larger table is set with cards and chips for poker. In the living room, a desk contains the famous "Buck Stops Here" sign. On another table rests a copy of the Chicago Tribune, blaring the 1948 headline "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Truman visited Key West five times after he left office, the last time in 1968.

Papa's house

A couple of thousand cruise passengers had unloaded from the Celebrity Century. Downtown was packed.

Along Duval Street they were buying T-shirts at the Hard Rock and eating Key lime pie, getting on and off the Conch Tour Train. They were singing along to Jimmy Buffett songs and eating cheeseburgers at Margaritaville, listening to rock music and drinking beer at Sloppy Joe's, the bar Hemingway made famous.

For many visitors to Key West, Sloppy Joe's is on the short list of places to see. I was more interested in Papa than Joe and set off along Whitehead Street to find his home.

Ernest and Pauline Hemingway, his second wife, came to Key West in 1928. Ernest discovered the region's great sport fishing and Pauline found the house. In 1931 they moved in.

The Hemingway home, a Spanish Colonial structure with long mustard-colored shutters, remains much the way it did during the couple's years there in the '30s.

The house cost $8,000, but Pauline spent much more to rehab it. One of the first things she did was to install chandeliers throughout the house instead of ceiling fans.

"And we thank her for that every summer," our tour guide said. Even on a January afternoon, it was hot.

Hemingway's writing studio remains upstairs in a carriage house, where he wrote, among other works, To Have and Have Not and For Whom the Bell Tolls. The studio contains his Royal typewriter, fishing and hunting trophies and a large rusty trunk with the initials "E.H."

A lot happened here during the Hemingway years.

The Hemingways built Key West's first residential pool, for instance -- for $20,000. When it was finished, the story goes, Ernest accused Pauline of taking his last cent. After their divorce, she liked to show off that penny, now embedded in concrete near one end of the pool.

The Hemingways must have been quite the neighbors. In the tropically landscaped gardens lies a urinal, disguised, more or less, with decorative tiles. Apparently Hemingway dragged it home one night from Sloppy Joe's. The urinal became a fixture in the garden and is now a drinking trough for the cats.

About those cats: Hemingway owned an unusual, six-toed cat named Snowball. These days Snowball's descendants have the run of the property. There are about 60 of them, about half of them six-toed. The house even maintains a Webcam so visitors can keep track of them, at hemingwayhome.com (click on live cams).

Finding Flipper

About 50 miles northeast of Key West, it's not cats but dolphins that bring visitors to Grassy Key. And if they have a famous forebear, his name would be Flipper, the movie and television star.

Her, actually. Flipper was a girl, a dolphin named Mitzi who in the 1950s and '60s was part of Santini's Porpoise Training School on Grassy Key, near Marathon.

That was a long time and several incarnations ago. Today the Dolphin Research Center is a nonprofit educational and research center.

It's also home to 19 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, including three babies, that sure are entertaining.

"Actually, you guys are their entertainment," trainer Brad Rose told visitors. "These guys eat up your attention."

In nine lagoons spread around the center, the dolphins put on quite a show, racing through the water, twirling in the air, and then returning for tasty fish treats.

And darned if I didn't learn a thing or two about dolphins while I was there. Now I know dolphins can swim 17 mph, and they get all the water they need from their food, not from the saltwater they swim in.

A big draw at the Dolphin Research Center is the "Dolphin Encounter," in which visitors can take part in a structured swim for about 20 minutes. But it's fun just to be around these creatures.

In one lagoon, trainer Julie Prevratil was working with 18-year-old dolphin A.J. and his son, Tanner, who's almost 5.

"We train them in small steps. It keeps them from being confused," Prevratil told a small crowd of onlookers.

This morning she was working with Tanner on vertical spins. As far as I could tell, he had it down, leaping high into the air, spinning tightly and diving into the water again.

The call of the sea

It was early afternoon on my second day in the Keys, and I was racing. I wanted to be in Key Largo, at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, before 3. I didn't make it.

The park, as well as the adjacent Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is filled with coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove swamps over 178 square miles. But the only way to see them is to be in the water, or at least on it.

Visitors can go out on glass-bottom boat or snorkel tours -- if they arrive by 3 p.m. I knew I shouldn't have stayed so long with the dolphins.

That's how I found myself on the Wild Tamarind Trail. Not all of the park is under water.

I meandered along a loop under a canopy of trees so thick that the sun could barely penetrate it. Signs told me I might see black turtles, screech owls, tree snails, raccoons and red-bellied woodpeckers. Lizards skittered across the path, but otherwise it was silent.

Instead my entertainment was an assortment of trees whose names I hadn't recognized: red-barked gumbo limbo trees, thick-trunked West Indian mahogany trees, blolly trees, Jamaica dogwoods and wild tamarinds.

But it was still pretty hot, the sun would set before long, and my time in the Keys was running out. My options seemed pretty limited, but there was one thing I hadn't done.

The cool, salty water was calling, and this was Florida, after all. It seemed silly not to answer.

I hit the beach.

SUNSETS AND BEACHES

When the sun goes down, the parties begin in the Keys. Here are five well-known places:

1. Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, Key West; sunsetcelebration.com.

2. Bahia Honda State Park, Bahia Honda Key; floridastateparks.org/bahiahonda.

3. Marathon Sunset Park, east end of the Seven Mile Bridge, Marathon.

4. Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar, Mile Marker 82, U.S. 1, Islamorada; loreleifloridakeys.com.

5. Sundowners Restaurant, Mile Marker 104, U.S. 1, Key Largo; sundownerskeylargo.com.

FIVE GREAT BEACHES

1. Bahia Honda State Park beach, Bahia Honda Key

2. Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park beach, Key West; floridastateparks.org/forttaylor.

3. Smathers Beach, Key West.

4. Sombrero Beach, Marathon.

5. Anne's Beach, Islamorada.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Several airlines offer connecting flights from Baltimore to Key West through Miami. The Florida Keys Marathon Airport recently began receiving commercial flights after a six-year hiatus. Delta Airlines offers a daily connection between Atlanta and Marathon, which is about an hour's drive from Key West. From Miami, it's a 160-mile drive along U.S. 1 to Key West.

LODGING

Holiday Inn Marathon -- 13201 Overseas Highway, Marathon. 90 rooms, quoted from $225. Discounted rooms available online. 305-289-0222 or holidayinn.com.

Cheeca Lodge & Spa -- 81801 Overseas Highway, sprawls over 27 acres in Islamorada. 199 rooms, suites and bungalows. Amenities include a private beach, fishing, water sports and a spa. Rates from about $270. 305-664-4651 or cheeca.com.

The Conch House -- 625 Truman Ave., Key West, dates to 1889 and has been owned by the same family since 1895. It was restored in 1993 and 2003 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Eight rooms, plus a house, starting at $168 through April 30. 800-207-5806 or conchhouse.com.

DINING

Margaritaville Cafe -- 500 Duval St., Key West. Singer Jimmy Buffett remains a co-owner of the restaurant where you can order a Cheeseburger in Paradise with fries for $8.95. 305-292-1435 or margaritaville.com.

Sloppy Joe's -- 201 Duval St., opened Dec. 5, 1933, the day Prohibition ended, according to a sign at the Key West bar and restaurant. Its original proprietor was Joe Russell, a friend of Ernest Hemingway's. The menu includes the Original Sloppy Joe sandwich, $7.95. Live entertainment begins at noon. 305-294-5717 or sloppyjoes.com.

Hideaway Cafe -- Rainbow Bend Resort, Mile Marker 58, U.S. 1, Grassy Key. The ocean view competes with the menu, which includes seafood specials, a fresh catch of the day and shrimp, scallops and shellfish in scampi sauce, $26. 305-289-1554 or hideawaycafe.com.

ATTRACTIONS

Harry Truman's Little White House -- 111 Front St., Key West, is open for guided tours 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $11 for adults, $5 for children 12 and younger. Ask about combination tickets for other attractions. 305-294-9911 or trumanlittlewhitehouse.com.

The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum -- 907 Whitehead St., Key West, is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Tours cost $11 for adults, $6 for children. 305-294-1136 or hemingwayhome.com.

The Dolphin Research Center -- Mile Marker 59, Grassy Key, is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, excluding some holidays. Admission is $19.50 for adults, $16.50 for seniors, $13.50 for children 4 to 12, free for children 3 and younger. Besides the tours, the center offers various interactive programs. 305-289-1121 or dolphins.org.

The John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park -- Mile Marker 102.5, U.S. 1, Key Largo, was the first undersea park in the United States. With the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, it covers 178 nautical square miles. 305-451-1202 or pennekamppark.com.

INFORMATION

Contact the Florida Keys tourism council at fla-keys.com or 800-FLA-KEYS.

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