Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Duval UNCORKED 2012!

It's that time again! The Key West Food & Wine Festival is coming up this weekend.  And, once again, the Tropical Inn is a stop on its mile-long premier event on Saturday, January 28:  Duval UNCORKED.  

Anna and husband, Bill, offering tastes of her creations at
The Tropical Inn / Duval Uncorked 2011
Because she was such a hit last year, celebrity chef, Anna Toole-Hutchens, CEO and all-around magician  behind the curtain at SaborAM, in Naples, FL, will be returning with her uniquely silken-textured, mousse-like, wine-infused cheesecakes.  This year, she is bringing her newest creations for sampling:  "GINY Pops" -- cheesecake on a stick!

If you are in Key West for the KWF&WF -- or if you are lucky enough to just "happen" to be here -- don't miss this incredible showcase of fine wines, tasty food samplers, and beautiful venues!  Based on the success of last year's event, hours have been extended from 3:30 - 7:30.  There will be plenty of time for Duval Street revelers to visit all the art galleries, bars, restaurants, chic-to-funky boutiques, and participating guesthouses -- toasting, tasting, and shopping along the way.

Click here for a preview!  Click here for tickets!  See you on Saturday!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Henry Morrison Flagler's Overseas Railway

Even before relocating to the Keys, I’ve been in awe of Henry Morrison Flagler, who more-or-less single handedly launched the tourism industry in Florida -- in fact, one might say, the “development” of Florida -- owing to the construction of his Florida East Coast Railway.  This weekend, a year-long centennial celebration at venues from St. Augustine to Key West will commence to commemorate the accomplishment. 
Here’s a little history:
Exactly 100 years ago today, at the very moment I am writing this, the first Overseas Railway train was minutes outside of town, rolling over concrete arches spanning stretches of open water, approaching Key West.  In a feat deemed impossible by most, it connected the Florida Keys to one another and the Mainland, forever changing the face of the island chain. Its guest of honor on the inaugural journey was its creator, aged and ailing oil baron Henry Flagler.
There is plenty written about the physical challenge of accomplishing such an engineering feat, but less about what proved to be a fortuitous byproduct of that accomplishment:  the birth of the tourism industry in Florida. 
Prior to the railroad’s arrival in the Southernmost City, the 128-mile expanse of open ocean, dotted by bits of terrain known as the Florida Keys, had been accessible only by sea or air. At the time, Florida was America’s last frontier – a swampy expanse with few redeeming virtues other than its exotic tropical vegetation and temperate climate.  
Flagler, the Standard Oil mogul with the financial wherewithal to make such a farfetched dream actually come true, conceived of the idea of the extension of his Florida East Coast Railway from the mainland, hop-scotching across the Keys to Key West.  It was to become the engineering marvel that first made the northernmost islands of the Caribbean Basin accessible by land.
Despite its isolation, Key West in 1912 was Florida’s largest city.  With 19,000 inhabitants, it had a thriving economy based on maritime salvage and cigar making. When Flagler’s first train rolled onto the island at 10:43 AM on Jan. 22, 1912, more than half the population turned out to greet it.
Rising above his humble roots, Henry Flagler as a young man founded Standard Oil in New York City on borrowed money, along with then-struggling John D. Rockefeller.  With gypsy adaptability and an entrepreneur’s eye to opportunity, he was simultaneously involved in numerous, mostly-successful business ventures.
By the 1870s, Flagler was one of the most well-off citizens in America.  Seeking a favorable climate for his ailing wife’s health, Flagler wintered in Jacksonville. After her death, he returned to the area.  Finding the local 19th. century hotels, as well as the transportation system, not to his standards, he recognized yet another business opportunity.  He ventured into the lodging industry with the construction of the Ponce de Leon Hotel (now a part of Flagler College) in St. Augustine.  Upon its opening, it was an instant success.
Soon, Flagler acquired what became known as the Florida East Coast Railroad, which connected the inland agricultural lands to the east coast.  As a point of reference, imagine this:  at that time, Miami numbered around 300 pioneers and was essentially an Indian trading post, the only organized semblance of municipality in existence in South Florida.
A well-connected entrepreneur, Flagler was privy to potentially lucrative trade opportunities with countries to the south.  Concurrent with the announcement in 1905 of the imminent construction of the Panama Canal, linking the Pacific Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico, he began the monumental undertaking (most called it “Flagler's Folly”) of extending his railroad across the 128 miles of open water dotted with occasional land masses to Key West.  
Flagler's vision was of Key West becoming an important port, maritime supply hub, and refueling stop, establishing a trade route with Cuba and Latin and South America.  Best of all, he had the monetary means to achieve it. 
For a number of reasons, Key West never reached its potential as a major port.  But, during the prolonged effort of the construction of his railroad’s Key West Extension, a burgeoning business opportunity had become apparent:  tourism.
Probably without ever realizing the magnitude of what he had started, the man that many call the “father of Florida tourism” single-handedly changed the course of the state’s history.  The places he built for his rich-and-famous friends have become dream destinations for people from around the world. 

Key West, which he originally envisioned as an industrial port, has become the most unique vacation playground of all the locales which bear his mark.  When visiting here, make it a point to walk through the Casa Marina (Waldorf Astoria) Hotel, Flagler’s last lodging creation on the Atlantic waterfront.  While not as imposing as his Palm Beach and Miami edifices, it nevertheless bears the distinctive stamp of its progenitor, in the grand style of the “Gilded Age”.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Our Vanishing Key West Bookstores

Not a good sign. 
Irony of ironies, we are losing yet another of our bookstores, right here on the threshold of welcoming attendees to the 30th. annual Key West Literary Seminar.  Then, we’ll be down to just one.
January 5, the opening of the seminar, coincides with the closing date of our next-to-last book store on the island.  “Yet Another World” (this year’s seminar theme), indeed, in a town rich in literary tradition. 
Woven into the very fabric of Key West is a profound legacy of literature, graced by such resident authors, playwrights, and poets as Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Judy Blume, Tom Corcoran, and Nancy Friday … and that’s just for starters. 
The Key West Literary Seminar is an internationally-recognized annual event, held in high esteem by writers and followers.  And an integral feature of every July’s Hemingway Days is the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Contest.  So to say that Key West has historically been a mecca for the literati is an understatement.
Over the summer, our Borders Express succumbed, along with its larger corporate parent, to crippling bankruptcy.  But the real heartbreaker was locally-owned Voltaire Books, which shuttered after just five years of specializing in titles of local interest and hosting many a book signing for resident writers.   It fell victim to the Kindle and its cousins, as well as online discount book sellers, such as  How disheartening for its owners to have browsers come in, scan the bar code info into their smart phones, and be instantly apprized of competitive pricing by online sellers, whose low overhead and mass distribution capabilities made the local merchants unable to compete.
Now we have the next-to-last survivor, Bargain Books & News Stand, entering its final days.  “Delightfully dilapidated” (as one of its afficianados describes it) and  steeped in the quirky ambience that is the signature of Key West, Bargain Books has, since the early ‘80s, done double duty in utilizing every bit of its narrow storefront to generate revenue.  Incongruously located at the back of the used book stacks in this shoplight-illuminated grotto is Able Body Fitness, a workout room available for use at a small fee.  (So why not browse and pump iron?)
It’s a rare occasion when, transiting the garden of our little Key West B&B in the afternoon, there is not a guest lounging by the pool with a good book – or, more often, a stack of them. Regular visitors to the island know Bargain Books as an off-the-tourist-track local find, and make it a regular agenda item to their Key West itineraries.  Others have stumbled upon it and stopped in, out of curiosity,  discovering treasures while mining through the loosely-organized stacks.
Soon, remaining as the only bookstore in the Southernmost City, will be Key West Island Books, located on Fleming Street in Old Town.  A study in organized chaos, finding something specific can be a challenge, so going in with plenty of time and an open mind is requisite for a full appreciation of the place.  Its 2,000 square feet is populated with enough volumes to properly display in a space twice its size.
Florida authors from flegling to legendary are represented, often having launched their latest publication with a book signing here.  There is even a Rare Book Room offering a signed, first-edition of Ernest Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa – where, for the paltry sum of only $9,000, you can enhance your own private collection.
So, when you’re in the neighborhood, make it a point to visit KW Island Books … before it, too, becomes a relic of the times.

Photo credits to the blog, “Key West Diary”,