Florida: Conch Republic redefines normal
Normality assumes a different definition the farther one travels south of the mainland. Normal for Key West has been hard to define since before John Simonton, an Alabama businessman, paid Spain $2,000 for the island in 1822. Only mosquitoes and pirates inhabited the forsaken speck of land and, of the two, malaria was the lesser health threat. The West India Anti-Pirate Squadron chased out the pirates by 1830, leaving the island in the domain of rum-runners and wreckers, people who lived off the ships that regularly crashed on the shallow reefs. Tourists had to wait until 1912 when Henry Flagler’s railroad reached the southernmost point of the continent.
Tonight at Mallory Pier, as though it’s an unexpected occurrence, people cheer as the sun slips into the crimson sea. Technicolor clouds frame the horizon, discordant drum and guitar cords drift above the hubbub like gulls sailing overhead, and people elbow their way past jugglers, Tarot card readers, portrait artists and self-proclaimed gurus. Mallory Pier, more famous for its sunsets than the Grand Canyon, is not the place for a tourist to blend in with the locals. But, I don’t particularly want to blend in with a drop-out stock broker with tie-died hair.
After my first day in Margaritaville, I’m not sure who owns the island, the crazies with cameras or the crazies with the Florida license plates. But twice, I was given the opportunity to own a piece of paradise myself. Time-share condo salesmen stalk tourists like barracudas after a school of sardines.
Just as seeing the sunset on Mallory Pier is obligatory, shopping Duval Street is the required introduction to the Key West scene. After strolling the first block, I realized there is no way to walk down the crowded street and maintain a shred of dignity. But if I wanted dignity, I would have bought a ticket to Williamsburg, not the Conch Republic.
Key West has never been known for attracting, encouraging, or even condoning, a dignified image. Pirates and smugglers aren’t dignified; neither are tee-shirts with lewd messages, street vendors blowing conch horns, corner musicians emulating Jimmy Buffet, or bars that start filling shortly after breakfast. Where else could the mayor protest the military by water skiing to Cuba (a six hour trip), and no one thinking it a particularly odd thing to do?
But for what Key West lacks in dignity, it compensates with style. It is the only town I know that can absorb a million tourists a year and maintain its identity. Duval Street is a study of Key West kitsch. Unlike most coastal tourist towns or the mega-theme parks in Orlando, Key West has turned tacky into authenticity. This town isn’t about to take anything seriously, much less itself. And it imparts the same carefree, accepting attitude to its visitors. If you can’t be laid back on a subtropical island, stay home and read the Wall Street Journal.
What endears Key West to conchs (locals) and tourists alike is the sense of place that permeates every street in the town. Key West has roots that reach back in history and give permanence to what would otherwise be a one-night-stand tourist town. The elegant architecture of 100-year-old homes, some converted into intimate hotels, towering kapok trees and luxuriant tropical gardens, and the salubrious days and balmy nights transport visitors into a separate reality, which is what vacationing is all about.
I make my first pilgrimage into Key West’s rich historical heritage when I step into Ernest Hemingway’s home. I previously visited Sloppy Joe’s bar, where Papa was apt to spent his afternoons after a heavy morning of writing. Now, I’m seeing where he wrote 70 percent of his life’s works, including For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.
Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, filled the 19th century, Spanish Colonial house with furnishings and memorabilia from his travels in Spain, Africa and Cuba and with his famous polydactyl cats. He kept 50 of them, all with more than five toes, and all named after famous movie stars and celebrities Hemingway knew. Forty-two of the descendants still loll around the grounds and on the catwalk, which connects the house to Hemingway’s study. Feline lovers can buy a kitten, but the waiting list is five years long. Literary lovers can sit in the Nobel Prize winner’s airy upstairs room and imagine the clatter of his manual typewriter, then go downstairs and see the urinal he brought home from his favorite downtown bar to use as a cat watering trough. Tacky? No, pure Key West.
The Conch Train is the best way to see the historic sights of the town. Once again I swallow my dignity and board one of the decorated cars. A jeep disguised as a miniature train engine pulls the tram, while a narrator fills the trip with a blend of interesting history and senseless trivia. Somehow even the corny jokes seem appropriate here.We drive down streets lined with palm trees and bougainvilleas, past the Audubon House Museum (in which Audubon never stayed), past Truman’s Little White House (which the President loved to visit), and old Fort Zachary Taylor, which captured 1,500 Confederate ships. This is like a Disneyworld ride, except the people passing on bikes with dogs in their baskets are real, not robotic figures.
The tram rolls slowly through the streets, but nobody appears to notice something as mundane as a tiny locomotive cruising their neighborhood. I feel as if I’m in the Twilight Zone between Oz and Wonderland where Alice and Dorothy are discussing who’s more interesting, the tourists or the locals. But the conchs are too busy enjoying each other to pay much attention to the tourists. Maybe Key West’s best kept secret is that the tiny island is big enough for everybody.
George Oxford Miller is a free-lance travel writer and frequent contributor to Houston Woman Magazine.
Dallas: Embracing art as new city icon
Think, “Downtown Dallas,” and what pops into your mind? Opulent shopping at Neiman Marcus, the Dallas Cowboys? With a revitalized, 19-square-block Art District, Dallas has forged a new image, a new icon, and it’s art with a capital A.
“The Art District is really about the heartbeat of the city. It’s about what’s behind the façade” says Caren Prothro, a member of the Board of Trustees of both SMU and the Dallas Museum of Art. “We’re not just about enterprise and business and politics. We’re about people.”
The Art District had its beginnings in 1984 when the Dallas Museum of Art, founded in 1903, relocated from the State Fair Grounds to the northeast corner of downtown. Then in 1989, the Morton Meyerson Symphony Center, designed by I. M. Pei, debuted a few blocks away. The Crow Collection of Asian Art opened in the Trammell Crow Center in 1998, followed by the Nasher Sculpture Center, designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Renzo Piano, in 2003.
Each art facility represents decades of work by supporters and collectors and has its own unique assemblage of world-class art. With a permanent collection of 23,000 works, the Dallas Museum of Art encompasses the world. In the gallery for Ancient American Art, I’m amazed by the design and vibrant colors of a wool textile from Peru. Red squares embroidered with condor figures cover a wall-sized black tapestry. It would be spectacular in any age, something Neiman Marcus would sell, yet it’s 2,000 years old.
At the Nasher Sculpture Center, the galleries and outside gardens exhibit works by Picasso, Rodin, Jonathan Borofsky, Alexander Calder, Paul Gauguin, Claes Oldenburg, Henry Moore and other world recognized masters. The sculpted images, some realistic, some abstract, reveal hidden dimensions of human nature.In 2009, the 30-year vision of the Arts District reached its culmination with the opening of the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House and the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater Center. The remodeled Annette Strauss Artist Square creates an outdoor performance venue and leisure open space to escape the concrete avenues of the surrounding city. The final member, the City Performance Hall, opens in 2011.
Standing together like standard bearers, the new Winspear Opera House and Wyly Theater continue the tradition of cutting-edge, award-winning architecture. The square, aluminum-clad Wyly Theater and the lipstick-red, oval Opera House complete the complex of iconic, monumental buildings.
As a coda to the 2009 opening of the Opera House and Wyly Theater, the Sheraton Dallas Hotel, bordering the Arts District, completed a $90 million renovation and re-launched under Starwood Hotels and Resorts brand.
“We’re the largest hotel in Texas with 1,840 guest rooms, but we want to be known as the friendliest hotel in Texas,” Ray Hammer, the general manager, said.
Unlike most luxury hotels, the Sheraton Dallas offers free WiFi and computer use in the Link, a special work-entertainment area in the lobby with 20 computer stations and TV viewing areas. The guest rooms have 37-inch flat screens with multimedia computer connections and iPod docking stations.
“We try to give people what they miss most from home, Hammer says. “The interior design, and even the restaurant menu, creates an at-home feeling. The top-selling dish is meat loaf.”
After sampling the gourmet entrees in the hotel’s Kitchen Table and the finger food in the Draft Media Sports bar, that trend puzzles me. Even Peets coffee and sandwiches in the lobby and Chills frozen yogurt dessert bar stand out from the typical franchise eateries.
Besides art, downtown Dallas has always been known for its eclectic dining. After a day in the galleries, we don’t have to walk far from the Sheraton to find burgers, seafood, Tex-Mex, Italian, BBQ and even Mediterranean. For Italian, the concierge recommends the Ravenna Urban Italian Restaurant. We skip the pizza and go straight for the authentic dishes. The chicken senatori is the best Italian I’ve had this side of South Philly.
The historic Neiman Marcus store is also on the edge of the Arts District. In 1907, Herbert Marcus and his sister Carrie Marcus Neiman decided to open a luxury department store instead of investing in a “sugary soda pop business” called Coca-Cola. The downtown store dates back to 1914 and, besides $900 cotton blouses and $3,500 leather vests, sells a chocolate chip cookie so good it has its own urban legend.
Art and Neiman Marcus have always been synonymous. The first branch store opened in 1950 with an Alexander Calder mobile as the centerpiece. Neimans once borrowed 20 Gauguin paintings from collectors around the world to inspire a new line of fashions. The success of Neiman’s epitomizes the entrepreneurial spirit of Dallas that made the $354 million Arts District possible.
“The Arts District is a gift to the city,” Linda Pitts Custard, a businesswoman and benefactor for the arts, said. “Ninety-five percent of the money came from private individuals, corporations and foundations. Cities rise and fall, armies annihilate each other, but art survives because it’s a reflection of man’s spirit and will.”
Charles Wyly, who with his wife donated $20 million for the Wyly Theater, sums up the city’s commitment to art. “Art stimulates creativity and helps bring out our highest aspirations. Art is essential for an open and free society.”
George Oxford Miller is a free-lance travel writer and frequent contributor to Houston Woman Magazine.