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At Mile 1235 we’re almost there — just a little farther down is Stock Island and its wall-to-wall marine facilities which include Oceanside Marina.

At last we have, as they say, gone all the way and reached Key West, an island city once described by writer Thomas McGuane as “...both an outrageous honky-tonk and a memento of another century —” Key West is the end of both Hawk Channel and the Overseas Highway, and the end of the line in more ways than one. For boatmen it offers exactly what it has offered seamen for ages — good, protected anchorage. Ashore, of course, it offers everything you can think of along with a great deal that may never have crossed your mind.

People still gather to cheer the sunset every day at the historic old Mallory Square. It's been paved and prettied up and the characters and entertainment still make it enjoyable for visitors. The nearby Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden is worth visiting, too.

Dockage in Key West is plentiful. Right downtown is a Westin Resort with marina, and other top-shelf facilities are available in Key West Bight. They include the A&B Marina, the Galleon, The Seaport at Key West Bight and Conch Harbor, where they can handle boats to 185' at the bight's entrance. Surrounding the bight you'll find some of the island's best (and most truly Key West styled) dining and drinking spots. Our very own editor, Captain Frank Papy says that the Schooner Wharf Bar in Key West Bight is an excellent spot for "...researching local knowledge." (That's a "Papyism," of course.) Farther eastward is Garrison Bight, with the Key West Yacht Club, Key West City Marina, and Garrison Bight Marina.

Of course, some folks prefer to anchor out. But if this means you, be advised that regulations have been implemented that will forever change that carefree life-style in Key West also. Permanent moorings, for which the city now charges a fee, have been placed in the old anchorages. The move was ostensibly to protect the seagrass from dragging anchors but many believe it was aimed more at eliminating unsightly old derelicts. In any event, there have been changes, including, of course, the No Discharge rule. The city welcomes you at the Key West Bight Marina where you can still tie up at the dinghy dock. You can rent space for a day, a week or a month.

Growth, development, and popularity are affecting Key West in other ways as well. New and glamorous resort hotels, while beautiful and luxurious, carry the risk of turning the southernmost city into just one more of the many, indistinguishable, homogenized “Destinations.” Similarly, the growing number of all kinds of theme eateries is also threatening to dilute some of the island's special offbeat character. But it hasn’t happened yet, and — with any kind of luck — Key West should remain unique for a long, long time.

Then again, thanks to its location, Key West has always been the very definition of unique. It was originally settled by the Spanish, who called it Cayo Hueso, which means Isle of Bones. The English took it over in 1763 and promptly corrupted that to Key West.

In 1822 Key West and the rest of Florida became part of the United States, and the flag was raised by Matthew Perry, the man who later opened Japan to the outside world. Perry attempted to change the city's name, and the harbor's ... and the island was briefly known as "Thompson's Island" in honor of the Secretary of the Navy and the harbor "Port Rogers" for the president of the board of Navy Commissioners. But, the name Key West prevailed. Perry was followed in command by Commodore David Porter who came in 1823 to get rid of the pirates and establish the Navy's presence ... and the military has been a dominant force in the area ever since.

In those days Key West was a cosmopolitan society that included Southerners, New Englanders, Tories, Bahamians, Spaniards, Greeks, Cubans, and a free-floating group of marine vagrants and hippies by whatever name. You could easily defend the argument that it is still much the same.

Salvaging ships wrecked along the reefs was the area’s primary business. In one 18-month period some 324 ships went aground in the Keys, and at one time Key West had the highest per capita income in the United States as a result. No wonder the government ultimately built the chain of lighthouses from Key West to Miami. (Continue...

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