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Enjoy Fun-in-the-Sun Options without Getting Sand in Your Shoes

Konk-er Key West

By Denise Seith

Where can you find a conch train, conch fritters, conch shells and the Conch Republic (pronounced “konk”)? They’re all located on the same two-by-four-mile island community of Key West, Florida.

Filled with much more than your typical beaches, bars and boutiques (although those are nice, too), this remarkable port city offers plenty of fun-in-the-sun Florida camping options that don’t necessarily include getting sand in your shoes.

But keep those shoes handy because it’s easy to explore and enjoy the historic homes, museums and tours because much of Key West’s entertaining history and highlights are within easy walking distance of each other.

All Aboard the Conch Train - Does riding an open-air train through the charming streets of Old Town while listening to stories of bone-bleaching Indians, Spanish explorers and cigar barons sound like your idea of exploring? Take the 90-minute Conch Tour Train. To say it’s fully narrated is an understatement.

Knowledgeable train drivers tell the tales and lively legends of Key West as the train passes more than 100 points of interest. Learn what gingerbread has to do with architecture and which former United States president wanted to move the capital here. Conch trains leave every 30 minutes between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. from Mallory Square (303 Front St.) or Flagler Station (901 Caroline St.).

“Papa’s” Place - Need literary inspiration for writing the next best-seller? Visit the tropical home and gardens where Ernest Hemingway penned a good number of his greatest stories. Built in 1851, the mansion still contains original antique furnishings used by “Papa” Hemingway and his family.

Guided tours are as entertaining as the six-toed felines that inhabit the place. More than 60 cats, descendants of Hemingway’s original furry friends, make this National Historic Landmark their home. The Hemingway Home & Museum is located at 907 Whitehead St. in the heart of Old Town and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Treasured Trove - Intrigued by thoughts of gleaming shipwreck treasure once lost for centuries at sea? You’ll find gold doubloons, dazzling jewels, bars of silver, cannons and much more at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum. Learn the long and sometimes tragic story of the Fisher family’s struggle to locate and surface one-of-a-kind artifacts and riches.

Collections from the 1700s English merchant slave ship Henrietta Marie and the 1600s Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha are on display in this maritime museum. Jewelry and coin replicas are on sale in the Trade Goods museum store, along with nautical-themed books and videos. Self-guided tours are available daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 200 Greene St.

Flagler’s Folly - Would a walk through an early 1900s railroad car filled with historic Floridian photographs, railroading memorabilia and rare moving picture footage pique your interest? Board the Flagler Station Over-Sea Railway Historeum and discover how the arrival of Henry Flagler’s railroad in 1912 forever changed Key West. Hear recorded accounts from some of the first passengers as they recount the eight-year struggle to build a railway from Miami to Key West.

Sometimes called “Flagler’s Folly” the railway is also known as one of the greatest engineering and construction feats of the 20th century. Although completely destroyed by a 1935 hurricane, the original train route is today’s road that links mainland Florida to the Keys. The museum and gift shop are at the corner of Caroline and Margaret streets at the entrance to the Key West Historic Seaport.

Wild and Wonderful - Looking for a breathtaking bird’s-eye-view of the turquoise Gulf and a chance sighting of sunbathers on the deck of docked cruise ships? Do it from the open cockpit of a vintage 1941 WACO bi-plane. Island Aeroplane offers flight tours lasting from six to 60 minutes or longer.

See the splendor of the coral reef, shipwrecks and uninhabited outer islands or let Captain Cabanas turn your view of Key West upside down during a thrilling aerobatic ride. Make your way to the west end of Key West International Airport (3469 S. Roosevelt Blvd.) and elevate your sense of adventure.

Southern Exposure - Still have energy and film to spare? Don’t miss the photo opportunity at the corner of South and Whitehead streets-here, a monument marks the southernmost point of the continental United States, which is only 90 miles from Cuba.

Head to the center of Key West’s historic waterfront-Mallory Square-to shop the unique Sponge Market and pick up a souvenir conch at the Shell Warehouse.

You can even pet a live shark and other “touch tank” sea creatures at the Key West Aquarium, or watch maritime history brought to life by live actors and laser technology at the Key West Shipwreck Historeum Museum.

Mallory Square really comes to life at the end of each day when locals and tourists alike join the craftsmen, street entertainers, musicians and pelicans as they gather on the pier for the famous Sunset Celebration. And come hungry – it’s a great place to enjoy authentic Key lime pie and fried conch fritters as you watch the sun sink into the horizon.

Conch Republic - Although you won’t need a passport, visiting Key West literally takes you out of the country. On April 23, 1982, the Florida Keys officially seceded from the United States and formed the Conch Republic. This very real event – prompted by the U.S. Border Patrol’s crack-down on drugs and illegal immigration – infuriated residents and visitors alike who were forced to prove their citizenship at roadblocks before driving onto the Florida mainland.

Fed up with this decidedly un-American policy, hours of traffic jams, subsequent canceled deliveries and empty hotels caused by the negative publicity, the mayor proclaimed from Mallory Square that the Conch Republic was an independent nation separate from the United States.

The rebellion lasted only one minute, but it worked. The roadblock was immediately removed and the event led to the creation of the motto that still emblazons Key West flags and souvenirs today: “We Seceded Where Others Failed.” Although the Conch Republic is less a political matter and more a state of mind, the episode is commemorated every April with a highly entertaining Conch Republic Independence Celebration.

So the next time you feel something positively un-American is happening in your neighborhood, do what the world’s first “fifth-world nation” did – protest. Perhaps your demonstration will, in the words of the Conch Republic, “bring more humor, warmth and respect to a world in sore need of all three.” To apply online for your own honorary Conch Republic passport, to purchase Conch Republic logo gear, or just keep up with local Key West news, visit or stop by the Secretary General’s Office at 509 Whitehead St.

See Woodall's featured Florida camping resorts in Key West.