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An evening or two with Leonard Bernstein in Key West

This February my wife and I forsook the snow and rain of Northern Nevada to head south to the Florida Keys. I had never been to Key West and the sunshine and sunsets and Ernest Hemingway were calling me. I purposely booked us into the Southernmost House Hotel figuring if we were headed south we might as well go the farthest south one can go in the US.

We were not disappointed. Picturesque does describe this little gem of a hotel and former museum, and stop off place for some five former US Presidents. The hotel proudly displayed the original proclamation that Lyndon Johnson was president after the chaotic death of JFK. Interesting that this would find itself on the wall of a private hotel and not in some official building. We were to learn that such is the mix of Key West - the old and the new mixed with a good deal of alcohol - especially Rum.

We joined the ghost of Leonard Bernstein for drinks later in our second-floor bedroom. He had lived there back in the 1950’s while writing the music for West Side Story. He was quite cordial and did not object to our sharing his room. We later read by the pristine swimming pool and marveled at the huge white rabbits that meandered about the hotel grounds. The multitude of large roosters that wander the streets of Key West is a memento from the Cuban cockfights and the change in our laws that eventually forbade such carnage. It adds a surreal mix to this eclectic scenario.

We had to dash to Mallory Square by sunset to witness the main event of the day. Throngs lined up along the dock to join in watching the descent of our golden solar globe into the ocean depths. Boats obliged those who would like a closer view of this event and pelicans help orchestrate the sunset sonata. Back on the docks, the entertainment began in full force once the sun was not center stage. There were magic and dance and singing and sales of everything from nicknacks to fine jewelry and paintings. Food and drink in a plethora of forms and smells assaulted the crowds as they began to disperse into the various restaurants and into the night. We managed to engulf two large lobster rolls before retiring for the night.

An early morning sense of urgency drove us out of our serene surroundings to view one

of the highlights of the area. The formal marker of the southernmost point of the US garnered so much attention that we had to show up after sunrise to avoid the long lines that it attracted. This twelve foot tall brightly colored pillar that looks like an upside down pint glass states that it’s 90 miles to Cuba. Fortunately, we were able to snap a few unaccompanied pictures and move on to our next top priority - the Hemingway House. After a short walk, we recognized the slanted wall of our query. An inebriated Ernest Hemingway and his compatriots had managed to construct a wall around his compound to impose some seclusion from the populous. Unfortunately, alcohol and vertical construction do not always mix and the wall has a definite Key West sway to it.

The Hemingway House and tours are a gem, especially for any writer or lovers of literature. The 54 double-pawed cats roaming the premises add their own flavor to the experience. Some of the stories about Ernest and his various wives - there were four, make the house come alive.

We had to finish off our visit with two of the iconic symbols of Key West - Key lime pie

and rum. We sampled several versions of the pie - each claiming to be the best in the Keys and perhaps right in their own way. We toured the Hemingway Rum factory and were forced to sample (and buy) bottles of their Pilar Rum. We managed to bring back bottles to further our studies of this iconic spirit.

Key West with its sunsets, seafood and seductive ambiance can be addictive. I can certainly, envision a return to this eclectic paradise.

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