Key West, Florida
Two of our bucket list places we wanted to visit were Key West, Florida and Havana, Cuba. Well on one trip we did both. On April 23, 2019 TeamTullyTravel set sail on Royal Caribbean’s, Majesty of the Seas for a five day visit to both places. I guess you can call this good timing, for we were one of the last ships to visit Cuba prior to the Trump Administration’s ban on “peope-to-people” visits to Cuba, which the cruise ships used to sail to this unique island. More on this later, but now to our first stop Key West, Florida.
To most, Key West is thought of as a beach town with great parties, endless sandy coastline and year-round sunshine. Well to that end, you would be exactly right. With plenty of, and I do mean plenty, of beach shops, bars, partying and sunshine. Key West is a small town and a true melting pot. With only 25,000 full-time residents, people from across the country and the world have made Key West home.
Deb & I kept hearing the word Conch being bantered about in our walks through the downtown area. I always thought a Conch was the spiral shell of a gastropod, often used as a horn. Well we were partially correct. It turns out that in Key West-eze, a Conch are people born in Key West. You’re not considered a Conch by simply living in Key West; but if you’ve been a local for at least seven years, you may be considered a “freshwater conch” in some circles. Who knew?
Key West is NOT a city filled with high rise buildings or a major metropolis, but rather a sleepy beach city, that I got the feeling from the locals that they would rather have all of us tourists just leave so peace and quiet could be restored.
We didn’t let the local sentiment get us down, they were all very friendly and helpful. So we trekked on our self-guided walking tour down Duval Street one of the main thoroughfares in the city. Lined with more bars than you can count, a Duval crawl is a must during a visit to Key West. Duval Street is also home to many restaurants and shops. When you get to talking to the locals you start to find out many interesting facts about Key West.
For one, it is closer in miles to Cuba than it is to Miami. As it’s famously stated on the Southernmost Buoy at the end of Simonton Street, Key West is 90 miles to Cuba. But to get to Key West from Miami, it’s a 150-mile drive down the Overseas Highway. The biggest “Oh Wow” we discovered was that Key West is only 8 square miles running four miles long and about two miles wide at its widest, Key West is a small island. The popular Old Town makes up about half of this area.
But the size does not equate with the fact this attached island is the home of the 3rd largest barrier coral reef in the world. Known as the Florida Straits, Key West’s coral reef extends 150 miles north towards Miami and 70 miles west to the Dry Tortugas. It’s the largest in North America and the third largest in the world behind Belize and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Yes another, “Oh Wow!”
We also found out that Key West was also a writer’s haven. Author Judy Blume who has made Key West her home for many years. Ernest Hemmingway lived here during the 1930s and some say Key West has inspired more writers per capita than any other American city. Other famous scribes who called Key West home include Tennessee Williams, Shel Silverstein, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and more. But one myth is not true. Jimmy Buffet does not live in Key West. He’s no longer a Key West local. But Parrot Heads can always gather at Margaritaville.
All in all Key West was fun, funky and a good place to spend the day off of the cruise ship. If you are looking to get away for a day or weekend and you are in the southern keys of Florida, drop on down and enjoy the sites and friendly atmosphere that is part of Key West.
After leaving Key West, Florida we were on our way to Havana, Cuba. A place we always wanted to visit but never thought the day would ever come until President Obama opened up the opportunities late in his Presidency. What a thrill we were expecting on visiting this island. Well, we were not disappointed. We were part of an 8 hour people-to-people bus tour from the ship. Setting foot on land as we departed the ship was thrilling. You are now in a place you never would have thought you could experience. The euphoria was palpable. The wisdom that we received during the day on this magnificent journey, was overwhelming.
Havana is an unparalleled city rich in culture, history and tradition. It is proud of its preserved architectural heritage and colonial past. The famous Habana Vieja (Old Havana), where the city began more than five centuries ago, is one of the best preserved architectural designs in the Americas. Its historic urban center is filled with cobblestone plazas, and the surrounding wall fortifications are centuries old and massive. Today you’ll see a mix of structures from the Baroque and Neoclassical eras as well as conventional modern buildings.
To say that there are many, many buildings and homes in need of repair is an understatement. That is one of the images that hits you hard and you have to let your mind wander back to an earlier time when this grand city was fresher and vibrant. There is a shortage of everything in Cuba. The very basic goods, to fix buildings, cars, clothing are scarce and hard to come by. That is the main reason most of the grand buildings that once stood proud and tall, are now is state of disrepair.
Havana exudes a strong foundation of art, literature, ballet, sports, and science. It was a fountain of inspiration for poets and musicians alike. Ernest Hemmingway lived here for years and a great portion of his novels were written in a house 45 minutes from downtown Havana. As you walk the streets you can feel the hopeful energy and inspiration in the city as entrepreneurs yearn to share their local food, art, and customs.
One of the images of Havana I am sure most people have seen are the old classic cars. There are around 60,000 classic American cars in Cuba. Experts estimate that about half of these cars hail from the 1950s, while 25 percent are from the 1940s and another 25 percent are from the 1930s. The cars are often family heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation. Most have been converted from gas to diesel engines, since parts last longer and the price of diesel is far less.
Travelers can take driving tours in classic cars, especially in more touristy areas like Havana Vieja and Veradero. In these places, there are usually rows of beautiful cars lined up for visitors to choose from. Many of the cars are convertibles, which are perfect for cruising slowly and taking pictures.
To take a tour in a classic car, simply find the car that you like best and tell the driver how long you’d like to tour. Oftentimes they will recommend a route, but you’re also free to direct them where you want to go. If you’re in Havana, it’s pleasant to drive along the oceanfront Malecón. Sunset is an especially beautiful time of day to cruise this section of the city.
During the day our guide, a young lady in her mid 30’s tried to give us a realistic picture of life in Cuba today. Cuba has great beauty to offer, but it also has its downsides. It is neither the fairyland of happy dancing people as it is sometimes portrayed, nor is it a dark place where people are left to starve to death as others might try to frame it. The monthly wages would seem to suggest so. A translator makes $20 a month, and a doctor makes $30 a month. A 1.5-liter bottle of water costs $2, sometimes $1. It’s an inevitable fact of life in Cuba that most things are out of reach of the locals.
Access to education and medical services is universal. Because the weather is hot, the residents don’t need fuel to keep themselves warm. The state also provides a subsidy for citizens to buy staples such as eggs, sugar and rice. The constitution ensures everyone has access to music and art, and going to see concerts or plays is either free or very cheap. Life in Cuba is expensive, and people are always looking for a way to make extra money. The houses are in a dilapidated state and the furniture inside is at least 30-40 years old.
The US and Cuba haven’t always been on the best of terms. Unfortunately, this also negatively affected the quality of life in Cuba. While Obama was winning admiration for his moderate approach, there were detractors who second-guessed the intentions of America’s warming to Cuba. Some critics say that America’s approach is not for diplomatic or humanist reasons, but instead simply to promote the USA’s interests. But now all of that has changed once more due to the Trump Administration banning all people-to-people visits on June 5, 2019. We can only hope that this will change in the coming years because a visit to Cuba is a learning experience, an eye opener, a place to be treasured.