Some travel to Key West for the sunshine, some for the booze, some for the surf, some to visit the home of a great writer; we came to see the cats with extra toes. They are called Polydactyl Cats and have a mutation that gives them additional digits on their feet. They were often prized by ships captains on the west coast of the US. Hemmingway, being a man who loved ships, was given one by a captain and they have populated his Key West home ever since. Their presence made Hemmingway’s home there a must visit destination for Trail.
Key West is the southmost island of the Florida Keys that you can drive to. It claims to have the southmost point in the continently US and we encountered a long line of people waiting to take their picture with the marker that proclaims this fact. Key West is heavily populated and frequently visited by tourists. We were there on shoulder season and it was well packed with cars and pedestrians. If you plan to visit, expect parking to be a challenge. A number of businesses rent small electric carts and cycles for roaming around town, though even with these we saw people struggling to find parking.
Catering to partying college students seems to be the #1 business in Key West and there are bars and liquor stores everywhere you look. None the less, I felt they did a pretty good job keeping a local flavor to the town despite the very heavy commercialization. We aren’t much into drinking, but we took a long walk up and down the main drag to check out the shops and find some local fair to eat. Seafood and Key Lime Pie are the order of the day, but there was a wide variety of good eats on offer. I had Yuca fritters for the first time and they were delicious. Conch dishes are also a local specialty, but if you want to help out the local fisheries, seek out a place serving lionfish. It has become a problem invasive species and is also very tasty.
Hemmingway’s home is near the south end of the key on a narrow street where you definitely won’t find parking at any reasonable hour unlesss the gods of parking smile upon you. A stone wall surrounds the medium sized home and gardens. While open to the public, you do have to pay an entry fee to wander the grounds. The cost of entry includes an optional guided tour of the house, which I recommend you take. Our guide was a very colorful fellow in his own right and clearly had a real passion for both Hemmingway and his cats.
The house itself contains a large number of photographs of Hemmingway and his celebrity acquaintances along with other artifacts of his life. It’s no grand mansion but by Key West standards it is a large home. We found our first cats lounging in his bedroom doing their best to get as much cat hair on the bed as possible. The kitties here are clearly used to hundreds of people wandering through their home and are quite happy to entertain pets. The main rules are no feeding and no picking them up.
Behind the house is another small building that contains Hemingway’s writing room upstairs, and a gift shop downstairs. It sits next to the swimming pool that one of Hemmingway’s many wives built in order to get revenge on him for an affair. It was apparently quite an expense and there is a “last cent” encased in lucite nearby to commemorate the achievement. Pretty much everything in the house has an amusing story. One of the water-fountains is famous for being made of a urinal from a local bar. Hemmingway purchased it when the bar was going out of business and stuck it in the garden. I took a moment to honor it while I was there.
Outside the house are the gardens where you will find the bulk of the many-toed felines. Little cat huts are squirreled away all over the place and you will find kitties roaming all over. There are between 30 and 50 of them on the grounds at any given time. Not all of them have extra toes, but most of those we encountered did. They are often named after celebrities or politicians that Hemmingway knew. In one corner of the garden, there is a cat memorial/cemetery with markers for the many cats of the past that have lived at the home. Our favorite kitty was a rather young lad who we followed about the yard watching him hunt bugs and enjoy the sunshine. His picture is the cover for this post.
We made more than a few rounds of the home and garden to hang with the cats and just enjoy the fantastic weather in Key West. If you are into cats or Hemmingway, I think it’s a great stop to make. He was a decidedly interesting person who lived a wild and adventurous life. And of course, the cats are adorable. We had wondered if there was a way to adopt or purchase cats from the estate lineage, but the answer is no. You can, however, adopt other polydactyl cats in need of a good home which are just as cute and adorable.