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Flagler's Florida: "A New American Riviera"

January 18, 2012 in Florida Feature, Henry Flagler, Uncategorized

The former Ponce de León Hotel is now the centerpiece of Flagler College's main campus.

When we last left Henry Flagler’s story, he had just become a full partner in John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Despite the fledgling company’s youth, Standard Oil was on top of the industry within 5 years of its founding. Producing more than 10,000 barrels of refined oil per day, the business made Flagler a millionaire many times over. At just 42 years old, Henry Flagler had reached the peak of the business world. Despite his extraordinary success, Flagler was not a man to rest on his laurels and in 1876 a chance visit to Florida changed the course of his career forever.

Flagler first traveled to Florida not on business, but on doctor’s orders. His wife, Mary, was stricken with tuberculosis and the couple’s physician hoped a winter in warmer climes would help her ailing lungs. Tragically, the mild weather did nothing to ease Mary’s recovery and she died soon after. Flagler’s first visit to Florida, though marred by death, did not deter him from returning many times and when he remarried in 1881, he insisted that he and his new wife honeymoon in St. Augustine. During his stay in St. Augustine, Flagler was charmed by the quaint seaside town, but found its hotel accommodations and transportation options to be outdated and woefully insufficient. But in the little town’s deficiencies, Flagler saw a business opportunity. While still on his honeymoon, he attempted to buy a recently built hotel called the Villa Zorayda. The owner refused to sell but Flagler would later credit this failed deal with motivating his interest in the development of St. Augustine and, ultimately, of Florida itself.

After returning home to New York, Flagler’s desire to go back to Florida and leave his mark upon its Atlantic coast became the driving force of his life. Although he agreed to remain on the board of directors at Standard Oil, Flagler stepped away from his day-to-day executive responsibilities in favor if his interests in Florida. In 1885, Henry Flagler returned to Florida and never really left. His business pursuits kept him there year round and he soon became one of the state’s greatest patrons. Flagler first set up shop in St. Augustine, the city he had fallen in love with years before, with intentions of building a grand, 540-room hotel named for Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de León. The hotel, inspired by Spanish Renaissance architecture, became Flagler’s passion project and he spent lavishly to make it a reality. As the new hotel’s construction approached completion, Flagler turned his attention to the town’s need for a reliable, modern transportation system that could accommodate future guests. He quickly bought up several short, local rail lines and combined them into what would eventually become the Florida East Railway.

The rail was such an immediate, smashing success that it encouraged Flagler to draw up plans for similar hotels spanning Florida’s Atlantic Coast. He called his vision “a new American Riviera.” Flagler knew that with the right combination of access and marketing, Florida’s coast would grow into the premier luxury destination of the East Coast elite. By the early 1890s, Flagler was working feverishly to achieve his vision, expanding his Floridian holdings with a missionary-like zeal. He began construction of a railroad bridge over the St. John’s River, which ultimately opened up the entire southern half of the state and drew his dream of a developed Florida ever closer.

Next time we will wrap up Flagler’s story with the almost accidental founding of Miami and (finally!) the construction of the over-seas railway!


Jimmy Buffett: A Key West Icon

December 12, 2011 in American literature, Pop Culture

Jimmy Buffett is a tropical legend. With so much of his life and work based around the atmosphere of Key West, it’s easy to forget that Buffett wasn’t always an easy-going beach boy. In fact, Buffett was born on December 25, 1946 in Alabama, where he spent the majority of his childhood. He developed an interest in music early, learning several instruments, including the guitar and trombone, during childhood.

He went to university in Mississippi, then moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in order to work as a correspondent for Billboard magazine, one of the premier music magazines in the country. Buffett focused on composing country music, not the tropical, beachy style he is known for. His love for music never abated, and although he was working as a writer, he also began performing his music in public in Nashville and in New Orleans, Louisiana. Though he loved the culture of New Orleans and the people around him in Nashville, Buffett’s life completely changed when another musician, Jerry Jeff Walker, invited him to visit the Keys.

Buffett became immediately enamored of Key West’s history, its inhabitants, and its culture. In an interview, Buffett once stated that for him, one of the most incredible things about the Keys was “that it was completely virgin territory, completely different from what [he’d] left behind.” The people he met were larger than life, the bars teeming with great stories waiting to be told. The relaxed lifestyle in which people could go out onto the beach to catch their food, make love, smoke marijuana, and simply while away the hours resonated with him. And in addition to all that, Buffett fell madly in love with the islands’ history: the smuggling heritage, the Native American history, the literary heritage, the slave and gold trades, and of course, the pirates.

Buffett was inspired by these elements and befriended talented artists, pirates, drug smugglers, drunks, and tourists alike, often ending up in jail overnight and finding work in various Key West staple establishments. Unwilling to return back to Nashville, he remained in Key West for some time, and his music truly began to shape itself into his characteristic musical style. By combining what he saw, lived, and breathed in Key West with warm, tropical lyrics and a love for pop, folk, country, and coastal music, he invented his own brand of music, often referred to as “gulf and western.” His music gradually became popular with denizens of Key West and outsiders alike, and when his number one single “Margaritaville” was released in 1977, it became the unofficial anthem of Key West.

Even though Buffett comes and goes to the islands these days, he’s become as much of a Key West figurehead as legendary author Ernest Hemingway. Through his music, literature, and Margaritaville brand, Jimmy Buffett turned his love for this culture into a lifestyle and business venture and, forty years later, continues to transport the tropical feel of the Florida Keys to households all over the world.


Pirates in Paradise

November 29, 2011 in Key West Travel, Travel

In Key West, this Thanksgiving week is not all about the turkey. Starting Thanksgiving Day, Key West is hosting the twelfth annual Pirates in Paradise event, featuring eleven jam-packed days of “pure piratical escapades” that honor and celebrate Key West’s vibrant maritime history.

Key West and its surrounding islands were important both to pirates like Blackbeard and Calico Jack and the people trying to catch them. From the Keys, pirates could take cover while ambushing merchant shipping along the Straits of Florida, which was an extremely significant trade route at the time. And following the War of 1812 when Congress cracked down on piracy, one of the primary anti-piracy squadrons established its headquarters on Key West. So what better way to celebrate the pirate lifestyle and Key West’s history than with a pirate-themed festival?

Sponsored by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, Pirate Radio 101.7 FM, 4 Orange Premium Vodka, and Pusser’s Rum, the Pirates in Paradise Maritime Heritage and Music Festival began at ten in the morning on Thanksgiving day, kicking off with a “Thankstaken” Pirate Party and Feast. But if you missed it, don’t fear: that’s only the beginning. Over the course of the festival, there will be plenty of events and activities for kids and adults alike, for those who simply have a passing interest in pirates, and those who have a serious investment in history.

Over the course of the eleven days there will be a Pirate Village and art fair, featuring period crafts, art, clothing, jewelry, vittles, and plenty of rum, beer, and grog because let’s face it – what’s a pirate without his alcohol? For pirate-obsessed adults, there will be a sailor’s shipwreck holiday ball, craft beer tastings, a rock and roll dance party, an end-of-hurricane season party, a Miss Pirate Key West Pageant, talent, and swim suit competition, and plenty of costume contests, including one for the most buxom wench and bad-ass pirate.

As an all ages event, Pirates in Paradise offers tons of activities for aspiring young buccaneers. There will be a carnival, a kid’s costume contest, and Pirate Art 101 “Color Along” with pirate artist Don Maitz (whose work has been featured in National Geographic). Additionally, in the pirate village, parents can go to a pub and peruse pirate wares while the kids participate in treasure hunts and coloring contests.

For those seeking unusual entertainment, Pirates in Paradise has it all. Some of the most anticipated events of the festival are the authentic reenactments of the famous Pyrate Trials of Anne Bonny and Mary Read and the tall tales storytelling competition, which allows contestants to tell their biggest fabricated story before a panel of nationally renowned authors.

Interested in history and literature? You’re in luck. There are opportunities to sail aboard a real pirate ship, and on Wednesday, November 30, there will be a special excursion on the schooner Wolf where one can join authors Roz Brackenbury, Robb Zerr, and Christine and Michael Lampe on a one and a half hour ride. Prior to the excursion will be an Authors and Artists Luncheon at the Pirate Village VIP tent. Author Robert N. Macomber will, throughout the week, be giving presentations, historical walking tours through Old Town, and partaking in the Literature & the Sea Sunset Happy Hour along with other pirate guests.

Although the festival isn’t free, admission to the Pirate Village is only $5 per day for adults and free for kids under the age of twelve. If you and your family are interested in spending a lot of time at the festival and really getting your pirate on, take advantage of the insanely cheap eleven day festival pass: it’s only $20, and will get you free daily admission to the Pirate Village and Festival VIP Hospitality Area!

For tourists in the Key West area this Thanksgiving weekend and beyond, this could be a wonderful opportunity to discover the great historical roots of the Florida Keys that doesn’t sacrifice fun for education. And don’t worry – if you can’t make it this year, there’s always next November!

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