|AP Photo/Florida Keys News Bureau, Andy Newman|
Suzette Laboy, The Associated Press, April 2, 2014
KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — From the treasures of a 1622 shipwreck to 4,000 years of diving history, more than a dozen museums are spread across the more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) of islands that make up the Florida Keys. Besides the water and sky views on either side of the toll-free Overseas Highway, the scenic drive south from Miami to Key West (about three hours) also includes plenty of opportunities to take in the island chain's rich history. Sites include a Civil War fort, a World War II plane, an exhibit about playwright Tennessee Williams and the home of writer Ernest Hemingway.
The History of Diving Museum is hard to miss as you drive by: Underwater sea creatures are painted on the ocean-blue building along with an old-fashioned bottomless diving helmet. The museum (mile marker 83, bayside) houses a large collection of diving helmets and artifacts, tracing 4,000 years of diving history. Highlights include a gallery about treasure hunter Art "Silver Bar" McKee; an exhibit of 45 historic dive helmets from 24 countries; nearly 2,500 books about undersea exploration; and free monthly seminars. Open daily (except major holidays), 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $12; children 5-11, $6, http://www.divingmuseum.org .
The Keys History & Discovery Center is located at the Islander Resort, a Guy Harvey Outpost (mile marker 82, ocean side). Exhibit themes include the first inhabitants of the Florida Keys, shipwrecks and salvage, pioneering families on the island chain, sport fishing legends and Flagler's Over-Sea Railroad. Open Thursday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $12; children 13 and under free; http://www.keysdiscovery.com .
The EAA Air Museum, located in a hangar adjacent to the Florida Keys Marathon Airport (mile marker 52), tells the story of aviation history in the Keys. The museum offers artifacts, photographs, memorabilia, books, a flight simulator, a 1940s-era military DC3 plane and a Beechcraft Model 18 that transported officers during World War II. It's funded by donations and a chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). Open daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m., free admission.
Pigeon Key Foundation and Marine Science Center is a 5-acre (2-hectare) coral island, used as a camp between 1908 and 1912 for 400 laborers working on Henry Flagler's Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, which ran from Miami through the once-isolated island chain to Key West. The island now houses quaint cottages and a museum filled with old photos, artifacts and memorabilia. Marine educational programs are held on the tiny island, which is also a great spot for picnics and snorkeling. Adults, $12, children 5-13, $9. Ferries sail for the island from Pigeon Key Visitors Center (mile marker 47, ocean side in the railcar off the road), 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m., http://www.pigeonkey.net .
Crane Point Museum and Nature Center, mile marker 50, bayside, houses nature trails, a butterfly garden, a children's activity center and a natural history museum. Artifacts in the museum's collection include a 600-year-old dugout canoe and remnants of pirate ships. Open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, noon-5 p.m. Adults, $12.50; children 5-13, $8.50; http://cranepoint.net .
In Key West
Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, 907 Whitehead St., offers guided tours of the house where he lived for most of the 1930s and wrote some of his most notable works, including "To Have and Have Not." Between 40 and 50 cats have the run of the home and grounds, and many of them have an extra toe, just like a six-toed cat Hemingway owned. Open daily 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. Adults, $13, children 6-12, $6; http://www.hemingwayhome.com .
The Tennessee Williams Exhibit, 513 Truman Ave. (behind the Key West Business Guild), chronicles the renowned playwright's life in Key West, which he began visiting in the 1940s. The exhibit includes photographs, memorabilia, first-edition plays and books, a typewriter he used and more. Open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, noon-5 p.m. http://www.twkw.org .
Custom House Museum, 281 Front St. near Mallory Square, is a national landmark operated by the Key West Art & Historical Society. The four-story building was once home to the island's customs office, postal service, and district courts and now showcases fine art and historic collections, among other artifacts related to Keys history and culture. Grounds feature sculptures by Seward Johnson. Open daily (except Christmas), 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Adults $9; children 6 and up, $5; http://www.kwahs.org/visit/custom-house/ .
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene St., showcases treasure from the 1622 Spanish galleons discovered by Fisher, an American treasure hunter known for his 1985 discovery of the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The museum includes a rich collection of 17th century maritime and shipwreck artifacts. Open weekdays 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m.; weekends and holidays, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $12.50, children 6-12, $6.25, http://www.melfisher.org .
Fort East Martello Museum, 3501 S. Roosevelt Blvd., is a national landmark. The 1860s fort was built to protect Key West during the Civil War, but it never saw any battles. It was used by the military during World War II, and then abandoned until 1950, when it was restored and reopened as a local art and history museum. Today it features Civil War-era relics and exhibits about the Keys' shipwreck-salvage and cigar-manufacturing industries. One of its famous artifacts is "Robert the Doll," whose mysterious history has haunted visitors for decades. Open daily, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Adults, $9, children over 6, $5; http://www.kwahs.org/visit/fort-east-martello/ .
Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, 35 E. Quay Road, showcases marine habitat of the Keys, both from land and underwater. There's a model of the Aquarius Undersea Lab, the world's only underwater ocean laboratory, and the Mote Marine Laboratory Living Reef exhibit, with a 2,500-gallon (9,500-liter) reef tank with corals and tropical fish. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., free admission, http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/eco_discovery.html .
If You Go...
FLORIDA KEYS TOURISM: www.fla-keys.com .
Follow Suzette Laboy on Twitter: @SuzetteLaboy