Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes is a popular song by Jimmy Buffett, who for all intents and purposes is the patron saint of Key West, and that 1977 groove best represents the laid back culture of the southernmost town in the continental U.S. Key West is closer to Cuba than mainland Florida, and the lush vegetation and Bahamian architecture give it a relaxed Caribbean feel. There is regular time, and then there is island time; Jamaicans refer to the mellow, no worries state of island life as being irie. Barbadians call the same feeling limmin. While there’s no particular name for this brand of chill in Key West, the vibe is the same.
It could be argued that Key West’s geographical isolation helped fuel peoples’ tolerant attitudes and liberal approach to life. Key West was not connected to the Florida mainland until 1912, when the Overseas Railway extension was built; the railway was then rebuilt by the U.S. government in 1938 and became known as Highway 1. Not only does Route 1 end in Key West at Mile Marker O, but when you get way from the cruise ships disgorging Hawaiian shirted tourists into Mallory Square for nighty sunset celebrations, you’ll have the peaceful feeling you’re adrift in a Zen-like expanse of sea, sky, and sun.[Adsense468x60]
It’s the sense of freedom and individuality in Key West that has long been a magnet for artists, writers, and the assortment of colorful, oddball characters that people the town. Writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Thomas McGuane, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joyce Carol Oates all made their way to the island at one point or another, as well as naturalist James Audubon and president Harry Truman. The liberal attitudes in the Conch Republic have also stimulated a large gay influx, and like Provincetown, Massachusetts, Key West isn’t afraid to let its rainbow colors fly. The ‘Let it Be’ philosophy of the native conchs, expats, and transplants that diversify Key West is part of the island’s eccentric allure.
From shipwrecking and cigar making to sponging and shrimping, Key West has been the home of some unusual industries over the years. The Keys have inspired numerous stories and legends about pirates and buried treasures, and every year or so a diving team strikes it rich and pulls some gold coins up from the bottom of the sea. The most famous shipwrecked treasure, however, was the 450 million Atocha Mother Lode that Mel Fisher discovered off of Key West in 1985. In the late 1970s and 80s’, drug running became as popular with the local fishermen as tarpon and marlin fishing. Today, Key West plays host to over a million tourists a year. Some come for a week and end up staying an entire season, which brings to mind another classic Jimmy Buffet song, Margaritaville. “I don’t know the reason. I stayed here all season.”
Key West is that kind of place.