A chance to sit at Hemingway’s desk in Key West

Island is a cultural oasis for free spirits, creative types and at least one lucky writer.

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Published in The Toronto Star in January 2016

Carol Shaughnessy was a 20-year-old student escaping the Minnesota winter when she landed in Key West 40 years ago.

After hopping in a pink taxi and driving alongside the palm tree-studded ocean through the historic Old Town streets lined with bohemian Victorian houses, she felt immediately at home.

So much so that, two days later, she called her mother to tell her she was moving there.

"I got a job selling frozen yogurt on a street corner for $100 a week and I knew I was rich," says Shaughnessy, now a publicist for the local tourism board.

"I never did go back to Minnesota. My life began when I got to Key West."

This tiny island, located at the southernmost tip of the continental U.S., just 150 kilometres from Cuba, casts that kind of magic on its visitors.

Ever since Hemingway made his home here in 1931 (followed by literary luminaries such as Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost), Key West has been a refuge for free spirits and creative types attracted by its remote location, tropical setting and frontier spirit forged by previous generations of fisherman, treasure hunters, rum runners, and cigar makers.

That includes a lot of Canadian visitors (who make up its most loyal, international out-of-towners) - 400,000 travel to the Florida Keys and Key West annually, half in the first three months of the year.

Key West is one of five regions in the 200-kilometre Florida Keys necklace of islands. The others are Key Largo (known as the dive capital of the world), Islamorada (the sport-fishing capital of the world), Marathon (popular for boating and its Turtle Hospital, the world's only licensed veterinary dedicated to treating sea turtles) and Big Pine and Lower Keys (which has a national refuge for miniature Key deer, a species that has come back from near extinction).

Key West is the most famous of the regions, thanks to the slew of celebrated writers who have called it home. (Today, they include authors Judy Blume, Meg Cabot, Annie Dillard and Anne Beattie.)

Its flourishing arts scene includes literary festivals, film forums, a couple of dozen art galleries and Broadway-quality theatrical performances, as well as jazz clubs, piano bars and drag shows that make it a draw for the culturally curious.

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