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Happy to be on the Florida Keys

Clive Nicholls discovers pirates, treasures, hard-living literary giants and deep-sea adventures on the Florida Keys

With its tales of sunked treasure ships, piract, fast living, hard drinking, big game fishing, wealth and the literary genius of Ernest Hemingway, Key West has always had a slightly racy image.

And it's all true. It has mellowed with time but as you enter Key West it's hard not to feel that excitement. 

Key west is at the southernmost tip of the islands of Florida Keys, all linked y the most beautiful stretch of US Highway 1.

The journey down here is wonderfil and spectacualr in equal measures but more of that later; jsut now it's the magic of Key Westthat has my attention.

At one time home to pirates and wreckers, Key West has grown up byt somehow seems to retain a spirit that seems different to any other US city.

In 1622 a fleet of Spanish treasure ships left Havana witha cargo of unimaginable wealth to finace the King of Spain in his battles nearer to home. the fleet picked up the Gilf Stream but sailed into the teeth of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico with many galleaons floundering on the reefs and in the shalow waters of Key West.

Salvage vessels were sent out from Havana and much of the booty was recovered. A second hurricane hit the salvage operation and one of the treasureships, the Atocha, that had already been located, broke up and its cargo was lost.

Three hundred and fifty years later, Mel Fisher, a diver and treasure hunter, made ithis life's work to find the Atoch. Bankruptcy was always just around the corner but its charisma always found another backer to but into his passion.

Tragedy struck his quest when the Northwind, one of his salvage vessels, rolled over and sank with the loss of Mel's son Dirk, Dirk's wifeAngel and diver Rick Gage.

But for 18 years Mel followed his dreams always believing that 'Today's the Day'. And you know what, on July 20, 1985, it just was. The Atocha surrendered her treasure. Forty tons of gold and silver, 114,000 'pieces of eight and wondrous jewellery of gold and emeralds were brought to the surface with a value of half a billion dollars.

Mel's troubles weren't over. The State of Florida wanted their cut, the US government wanted their cut, the US government wanted the lot but after years of lagal battles, the courts found in Mel's favour- he got to keep his treasure.

He died in 1998 but the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, just off Mallory Square, still tells his story today.

Ernest Hemingway set up home at 907 Whitehead Street, Key West in the Thrities. Today the house (built in 1851) is a museum with 750 visitors a day and gives a fascinating insight into his fast living lfestyle and writings of the period.

Big game fishing, drinking at Sloppy Joe's, (just one block away on Duval Street) and sailing his boat the Pilar around the Caribbean mixed with hunting trips to East Africa not only satisfied his hedonistic lifestyle but gave him inspiration for his books.

If you find yourself in the area go and visit the house, it helps understand what Key West was all about. Key West is a compact city with Duval Street (the main drag) running coast to coast from north to south in just one and a quarter miles. Everything is walkable but I took a guided cycle tour. It was great fun, easy riding (no hills, the highest point is only 18ft above sea level) and a great introduction. We stopped by the Little White House, President Harry Truman's winter home. It  was the first offic of Pan Am, where in 1927 their first international flight ticket was sold. Pam Am's flight one took off from Kay West to Havana, Cuba.

The building is now owned by Kelly McGillis of Top Gun fame. 

Highway 1 starts just across the road and is a popular photo stop. Pedaling south we soon reach the ocean at the southern most point of mainland USA and the ataue of Bishop Albert Kee, who sold fish and conch shells on this spot for 50 years. Waving to tourists, it's thought that he has welcomed more than 11 million visitors to his corner of South Street/Whitehead Street. 

No visit to Key West is complete unless you take in the sunset on the waterfront. Everyone turns out and the atmosphere is fantastic.

Bands are playing, entertainers performing with peace and love in the air. One lad on a piano was giving it everything; he was brilliant. I dropped a few dollars in his pot and wished him well.

Tomorrow I've got a date at Key West airport for the ultimate day trip- a seaplane flight to the Dry Tortugas. So spectacular but I'll tell you al about it in a later edition of Choice.

I'm back in Key West and as the evening sky turned to night, I took to the water in a sheltered lagoon in a kayak. 

Strip lights,fixed onto the kayak, faced downwards into the water as I paddled through the lagoon, the glass-bottomed kayak giving me views of the lea life beneath me- strangely fascinating.

The kayaks are quite stable but as I returned to the dock I did manage to fall in. The water was warm but it did take me a minute or two to see the funny side of things.

My camera was in one of those dry bags so no harm done apart from to my pride. The Stoned Crab Restaurant, where I was dining straight after, supplied towels and sympathy and, by the time I'd downed a few oysters and a glass of white wine flowed I forgot about my unscheduled dip in the ocean.

The seafood here is as fresh as it comes; they've got their own boats that land fish daily and as the food and one flowed I forgot about my unscheduled dip in the ocean.

I probably still smelled like a swamp rat but that might have bothered neighbouring tables more than me.

I talked earlier about a journey on Highway 1, and one hundred miles out from Key West your holiday really starts. 

Key Largo, at the north east end of the Keys was made famous by the 1948 film Key Largo even though it was largely shot in Hollywood.

Another film connection is with the boat African Queen, which was used in  the 1951 film of the same name- it is based here and gives steamboat rides to tourists. you can share the same boat that Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart used in their classic scenes and the ride out to the ocean is good, but any links with Key Largo are tenuous at best. 

Key Largo is a big diving and snorkelling centre. I went snorkelling in the ocean side over near Grecian Rocks about six miles offshore. Katie our skipper knew exactly where we should be for the best experience.

The colourful reef fish floated with the current, a large barracuda passed me about six feet away. I saw lobsters making their homes in the coral, the Angelfish feeding on the algae and on the way back to the boat a larger skate passed just underneath me- magic.

The sunsets all through the Keys seem to define a time when you should be perusing a fabulous seafood menu with a glass of wine in your hand. The temperature is fabulous, the sea and sky create a sublime and ever changing picture as the sun gently disappears below the horizon- the best time of the day. 

The Keys are a string of islands just over 100 miles in length and, joined together by a series of bridges, the longest being the aptly named Seven Mile Bridge.

On the north side you have the Gulf of Mexico, and at Key Largo I was at Sundowners on this side for the sunset. South side in the Atlantic Ocean was where I went snorkelling and took a ride in the African Queen. 

It's a fascinating place with unique geography. You are always close to the water, there's so much to do but also so many places to relax. Take the trip and enjoy a drink at Sloppy Joe's. You'll be in good company. 

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