First Stop on Florida Keys Trail of Passions & Dreams

By Karen Rubin

There are several key themes that run through the Key West storyline – shipwrecks and salvagers, pirates and other individualists. It is the quality of free spirit that probably best unifies the string of islands known as the Florida Keys, also known as the Conch Republic.

On view at the Pirate Soul Museum, one of Key West's newest museums: the only authentic pirate treasure chest (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Over lunch at the Conch Republic Seafood Company, right on the water in Key West (631 Greene St., 305-294-4403.), we became curious to learn how the Florida Keys became the Conch Republic.

A conch is that large beautifully colored, spiral shaped shell, a gastropod of the family Cymatiidae, that is sometimes used as a horn or trumpet, as in fog at sea, or to call laborers from work. In works of art, the shell is used by Triton as a trumpet. Triton, in classical mythology is a son of Poseidon and Amphitrite.

“Conch” is what natives of the Florida Keys are called, possibly because the sea snail within the shell is hearty, a survivor, and that’s how the natives see themselves. By the 1980s, the Florida Keys had gained a reputation for being free spirits – not incidentally, as place where certain stimulants might be imbibed.

And so it came to pass in 1982 that the United States Border Patrol set up a blockade on highway U.S.1 at Florida City just north of the Florida Keys, causing a 15-mile backup. The blockade was considered a “heinous act” because it effectively isolated Keys citizens from the U.S. mainland by cutting off the only land artery to and from the mainland.

“This roadblock portrayed Keys residents as non-U.S. citizens who had to prove their citizenship in order to drive onto the Florida mainland! Hardly an American thing to do!”

One of only two "surviving" Jolly Roger flags can be seen at the Pirate Soul Museum in Key West (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The Keys citizens did not take this action lightly. Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow along with a few other ‘key’ Conchs, went to Federal court in Miami to seek an injunction to stop the federal blockade, but to no avail. Upon leaving the Federal Court House, Mayor Wardlow announced to the world, by way of the assembled TV crews and reporters (who had coincidentally been summoned for the occasion) that “Tomorrow at noon the Florida Keys will secede from the Union!”

At noon, on April 23, 1982, at Mallory Square in Key West Florida, Mayor Wardlow read the proclamation of secession and proclaimed aloud that the Conch Republic was an independent nation separate from the U.S. The Conch Republic’s civil rebellion began by breaking a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a U.S. Navy uniform. After one minute of rebellion, now Prime Minister Wardlow turned to the Admiral in charge of the Navy Base at Key West, and surrendered to the Union Forces, and demanded $1 billion in foreign aid and war relief to rebuild our nation after the long Federal siege!

The Conch Republic celebrates its Independence every year with (what else?) a week-long celebration, including a reenactment of its act of rebellion, when I am sure you are to hear the battle cry refrain, “We seceded where others failed.”

The Conch Republic has its own flag, its own Navy (consisting of a tall ship and a catamaran) and an airforce (consisting of a biplane). It calls itself the first “Fifth World Nation” (leaping over the “Fourth World”).

You can become a conch by living in the Keys for seven years, doing something wonderful for the community. But (get this) because the Conch Republic is “a sovereign state of mind,” anyone can purchase a passport (people have been known to travel on it (it has been accepted in 13 Caribbean Nations as well as Germany, Sweden, Havana, Mexico, France, Spain, Ireland, and Russia). You can also purchase an ambassadorship. And you can do it online (

The story reminded me a lot of the movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and some variation of dialogue, “There’s a little pirate in all of us” – which seems to exemplify the free-spirit, nonconformity of what it means to be a Conch.

Pirate Soul Museum

Hardly glamorizing, at the Pirate Soul Museum you realize why the average lifespan of a pirate was 3 years (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The Keys is well associated with pirates, so you can’t imagine a better place for Pat Croce, the best-selling author of motivational books, host of a nationally syndicated television show, and former owner of Philadelphia 76ers and part-time Key West resident, to bring his passion for pirates to fruition than by opening the Pirate Soul Museum, housing his life-long collection of artifacts.

The $10 million, 5,000-square-foot museum, which opened in 2005, displays some 500 artifacts – believed to be the largest collection of authentic pirate artifacts – including what is claimed to be the world’s only authenticated pirate treasure chest (this one belonged to Captain Thomas Tew, born to a well-to-do Newport, RI family, was a privateer turned pirate and friend to Governor Ben Fletcher; the chestt has 12 bolts and intricate padlocks and key), and an authentic Jolly Roger flag (also amazingly rare, this is one of only two known to have survived), plus books (all first or second editions, including an1847 first edition by B. Barker about Blackbeard) and navigational instruments (there is an Astrolobe from 1563, on loan), depicting the Golden Age of Piracy, from 1690-1730.

Besides the artifacts, which are fascinating to behold, there is an intriguing use of engaging interactive technology, devised by specialists who have worked at Disney, Universal Studios, FAO Schwartz and the Hard Rock Caf�.

One of the most unusual – and jarring – elements is an “audio-animatronics” experience devised by a Disney Imagineer, in which you go into a tiny, locked room (like a prison) that goes pitch black. In this restricted sensory experience, you hear and feel things – like wind blowing at your ear, cannon fire explosions – as you find yourself in the midst of Blackbeard’s last battle. You have to tell yourself “this isn’t real.” This is most definitely not recommended for small children or people who are afraid of the dark or prone to claustrophobia or any other phobia.

You walk through what seems to be the streets of Port Royal, Jamaica; a whole room is devoted to Blackbeard.

You learn about two women pirates, Anne Bonny and Mary Read (who at first didn’t realize the other was a woman, but who became good friends); Mary Read worked on a ship dressed as a man, met and married another soldier. After her husband died, Mary remained as a man and signed on Calico Jack’s ship – his mistress, Anne Bonny (her father was wealthy plantation man), died in prison.

You learn how Captain Kidd was hired by England to attack the French; how Bermuda and Jamaica wanted pirates. “All made deals with the government – it brought money to the economy.” In fact, Bermuda is quite proud of its “privateers” – the word for a pirate that had some legitimacy.

That actually sounds quite contemporary, given the resurgence of piracy in Somalia.

The “Golden Age of Piracy lasted from 1690-1730, when there might have been hundreds of pirate ships at any one time.

Blackbeard had four ships under his command; he would offer to let the merchant crew join, and most would have wanted to because the pirate ship actually offered a better life than as a sailor on a merchant ship. His chief weapon was terror, and he waged a rein of terror for three years.

Parrot Key Beach House Resort is a tropical oasis with lush gardens, where cottage-style homes overlook one of four pools (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

You could imagine that these people were drawn to piracy for the romance, adventure, and even glamour, but that changes when you realize that the average pirate lasted only three years before they died in battle, of disease, or were caught and hung.

The graphic reality of this is on display, as well, when you see what seems to be the tarred remains of a pirate hung in a giblet – a cage.

You see the “Broadside” – the published dying words of Captain Kidd. Some 200,000 people showed up for his execution. The lasting allure is that he is purported to have had hidden treasure, perhaps on Gardiner’s Island.

The artifacts are fascinating: there is a rare 1696 “Wanted” poster for the dreaded Henry Every; an assortment of rare pirate gold, cannonballs, weaponry, flags, books, maps, clothing, and proclamations. In addition to Mr. Croche’s collection, the museum also displays artifacts on loan from the North Carolina Maritime Museum and the Delaware Art Museum.

The museum’s design is by Gallagher and Associates, Bethesda, Maryland, which has done work for the Holocaust Museum in New York, the International Spy Museum and Holocaust Museum, and the Rock n’ Roll museum.

The result is a little “Peter Pan,” a little “Pirates of the Caribbean” but mostly a serious exploration into who these people were. They become less cartoonish and more complex characters in the context of the times they lived – more libertarians, people who sought the comparative “democracy” and equal opportunity of piracy, than psychopaths or sociopaths.

Beach chairs at Parrot Key Beach House Resort (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

There is a 45-minute self-guided tour, as well as an audio-tour narrated by Mr. Croce (Pirate Soul Museum, 524 Front St.; (305) 292-1113,

Complete the experience at Pirate Soul Museum with a delightful meal at Rum Barrel Restaurant Bar, just next door (and owned by Croce). In true spirit of the Golden Age of Piracy, there are 100 different rums to sample (check out the Rum bible). The drink menu and daily specials highlight signature libations like the Rum Barrel (includes three Bacardi varieties), the 302 (includes two shots of Bacardi151), Redbear’s Bloody Mary, and the Ultimate Cuba Libre (Bacardi 8-year-old ob the rocks with a lime wedge and mini glass bottle of Coca-Cola).

The restaurant is actually quite family friendly, and there is live music.

The food selections are fun (you will feel comfortable bringing your kids) – Nachos Goombay topped with pulled pork; barrels of spicy Buffalo Chicken Tenders; Blackbeard’s Bleu Burger, blackened and topped with bleu cheese; Crab Cakes (a special recipe) topped with Key Lime Aioli or Island Fish Tacos. For dessert, Overboard Chocolate Cake which is served by the hunk, Cinnamon-Bun Bread Pudding with Rum Sauce (

Mel Fisher’s Museum

Another perspective on the dangers of the sea, the passion that drives people, and the interplay of merchants, pirates and salvagers, becomes vividly clear at one of Key West’s most famous attractions, Mel Fisher’s Maritime Museum, showcasing the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere, including the treasure of the Nuestra Se�ora de Atocha and other area shipwrecks including the galleon Santa Margarita.

On display is literally the treasure trove that Mel Fisher uncovered after 16 obsessive years in search of the Nuestra Se�ora de Atocha, a 17th-century Spanish galleon that sank in a 1622 hurricane, 45 miles west of Key West. His obsession was rewarded in 1985 when he recovered $400 million in gold and silver, as well as treasure from other shipwrecks including the galleon Santa Margarita, most of them excavated from the waters around the island city.

You view gold, silver, emeralds and priceless artifacts. You can even hold in your hand a gold bar found on one of the wreck sites.

The afterglow colors sky and skyscape of Key West (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Also on display are artifacts from the English merchant slave vessel Henrietta Marie, which sank in 1700 near the Marquesas Keys and was salvaged by Fisher’s crew. In addition, a second-floor gallery hosts a new maritime exhibition each year, on fascinating topics including the slave trade, piracy, or when I last visit, an exhibit themed around Shakespeare’s Tempest. (200 Greene St., 305-294-2633,

Other intriguing attractions that round out these themes:

The Key West Lighthouse Museum: Erected in 1847, the lighthouse guided mariners until it was decommissioned in 1969. Both the keeper’s quarters and the lighthouse have been restored. Visitors can walk 88 steps to the top for a wonderful view of the city (938 Whitehead St.; (305) 294-0012,

The Key West Cemetery: Look for creative headstones that read, “I Told You I Was Sick,” “Now I know where he sleeps,” and “Devoted Fan of Singer Julio Iglesias.” The cemetery also contains the resting place of Hemingway’s friend and fishing captain, “Sloppy Joe” Russell and sparring partner Kermit “Shine” Forbes. Another plot pays homage to the sailors killed in the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine.

To best take advantage of the attractions, you can purchase a Paradise Passport which includes a ride on Conch Tour Train or Old Town Trolley, and admissions to Key West Aquarium, Ernest Hemingway House & Museum, Key West Shipwreck Historeum, Harry S. Truman Little white House, Flagler Station Oversea Railway Historeum Museum, Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory, Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, and shopping discounts ($81/adult, $42.50/child; an Island passport, with fewer attractions, is $63/adult, $30/child (305-292-8978, 800-717-7790).

Choice Accommodations

There are any number of styles and types of accommodations.

We so enjoyed our stay at the Parrot Key Beach House Resort – it is relatively new, and a bit outside the Old Town district (you would need to drive in), and is entirely unexpected, in the middle of what appears a suburban shopping center.

Recently opened by Singh Resorts, it offers this tropical oasis. It features 74 one-, two-, and three-bedroom beach homes on five lushly landscaped acres on the Gulf of Mexico, each fronting on one of the property’s four swimming pools or overlooking the gulf-side sunning beach.

Sunsets from Mallory Square are legendary (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The homes combine classic Key West architecture and beach-themed cottage d�cor, with every modern amenity – it is literally your beach home away from home, ideal for couples or families.

The cottages include fully equipped gourmet kitchens, large private porches, LCD flat-screen televisions (there is even a media room) individually selected original art, DVD/CD stereo systems, Wi-Fi high-speed Internet access and a third-floor media suite.

The grounds and artwork are breathtakingly beautiful – glazed urns of flowers, sculptures, a portico leading to the pool, music playing softly. In addition, there is a poolside caf� and tiki bar with island fare, plus kayaks and jetskis available (Parrot Key Beach House Resort, 2801 North Roosevelt Blvd.,

Another unexpected pleasure was the Ambrosia Key West, a bed-and-breakfast consisting really of a complex of clapboard homes, most surrounding a pool with beautiful gardens, a short walk to Duval Street Entertainment District, Mallory Square and the historic seaport, and most of the major attractions and restaurants and shops, and yet so quiet and removed.

Ambrosia offers tropically decorated accommodations (each featuring a queen or king size bed) including two-room suites, two-story town homes and a two-bedroom, two-bath cottage, each with private baths and entrances (most with French doors) that open up to a variety of intimate outdoor spaces, including private verandas, pools and patios, and gardens with sculptures and foundations. The accommodations include refrigerator, coffee maker, cable TV, WI-FI, portable phones and message center, air-conditioning, ceiling fans.

There is actually a lap pool, plus a dipping pool and a spa.

Guests enjoy a wonderful breakfast buffet, plus the use of guest robes, the use of a guest computer, free local phone calls.

Both charming and elegant, Ambrosia is ideal for a destination wedding, a family reunion, or a romantic getaway (it is even pet-friendly). Special value packages are available online (Ambrosia Key West, 622 Fleming Street, Key West, FL 33040, 305-296-9838,, e-mail:

Take a ride on the Conch Tour Train and hear how the Florida Keys became the "Conch Republic" (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

As we leave the Ambrosia Key West we happen upon Nancy’s Secret Garden, created by Nancy Forrester, which has been described as a living work of art. Finding this open-to-the-public place is tricky – the entrance is on Free School Lane, off the 500 block of Simonton Street between Fleming and Southard streets. The four-acre tropical garden has some plants that are rare and endangered while others are extinct in their original habitats. A group of exotic birds resides among the lush foliage (305-294-0015).

To help you plan your visit, contact the Florida Keys & Key West Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1147, Key West FL 33041, 800-FLA-KEYS (800-275-5397),

Even three days was not enough to fully explore Key West, but we have only begun our exploration of the Florida Keys. Too soon, we are back on the trail following the passions and pursuits of others who have settled, not tamed, the Keys.

Also see:

Tuesday, 2 June, 2009

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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