Key West, Florida

Built on a living corral reef, Key West Florida claims the southern most location in the continental United States but be sure and check your geography. Review with your child longitude and latitude as you test this bold claim. Discover great water activities – Sailing, snorkeling, scuba diving and all kinds of fishing (snapper, grouper, dolphin, blackfin tuna, wahoo, kingfish cobia and amberjac, just to name a few). While there are beaches, they are small and spread around the island (try to figure out where the sand comes from). People come to Key West for water activities. It is easy to explore 6,000 reefs and 800 islands when there are almost 40 charter boat operators vying for your business.

Get your child scuba certified before the trip and take advantage of relatively easy reef dives which can be as shallow as 5 feet and many only 20-30 feet deep making them safer and more beautiful to swim around since more light reaches these reefs. (Science project – percentage of light energy absorbed the deeper one goes: “In just three to four feet of water, about 45 percent of light energy is absorbed, mostly in the green, blue and violet range. At 35 feet about 84 percent of the available light energy is absorbed.” There are also extensive varieties of structures, including patch reefs, spur and groove formations, mini-walls and drop-offs. Don’t want to scuba, snorkeling will keep you entertained, as will a jet ski tour of the island or a sunset sail.

Take a couple of good books along. Pick any by Ernest Hemingway since you can visit his house and get a sense of the life he led. Your child will read several of his more famous books in school: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway had a front row seat in WWI driving an ambulance and in WWII as a war correspondent, including participating in the D-Day landing. One of America’s most famous writers, Hemingway won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize. Have your child research these two awards.

President Harry Truman’s doctor told him he needed a break from the stress and strain of Washington D.C., so he visited the naval base in Key West. He liked it so much he would go back 10 more times during his presidency. While he took time to go on walks and fish, President Truman reflected on some of his most complicated decisions while in Key West: The Marshall Plan focused on rebuilding Europe with the help of massive U.S aid, partitioning Palestine and the recognition of Israel, dealing with the Russians and the start of the cold war, how to handle labor unrest and a civil rights executive order requiring federal contractors to hire minorities. Tour Truman’s little White House and step back in time.

Key West was first discovered by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513. Discovering the Gulf Stream that flows out of the Gulf of Mexico into the Atlantic providing ships with a strong current speeding their trip back to Europe. Cuba was the logistics hub for the Spanish trade from Latin America so the ships would leave Cuba headed to the Atlantic past Key West which is only 90 miles from Cuba. Like airplanes flying over headed to an airport, over 100 ships a day would sail by Key West headed to Latin America or back to Europe. The ships leaving Havana were crammed full of New World products. Gold and silver in coins and bars, property of the king, were carried aboard the heavily armed escort galleons. Personal wealth in coins and jewelry accompanied passengers on the merchant ships, together with indigo and cochineal dyes, exotic woods, ceramics, leather goods, chocolate, vanilla, sassafras, tobacco, and products made by the native peoples of the Americas. Without weather radar and little ability to predict storms or warn against storms over 1,000 ships would ultimately run aground on the reefs around Key West. The economy flourished in Key West from salvage crews racing out to the shipwrecks to recover the goods which would be auctioned off in Key West. Between 1828 and the 1850s Key West became one of the richest cities in the U.S. benefiting from almost one shipwreck a week.

The most famous was shipwreck was the Nuestra Senora Atocha which was filled with copper, silver, gold, emeralds and other New World riches which left Havana on September 4, 1622 as part of a Spanish flotilla only to quickly run into a hurricane. The Atocha was one of several ships lost. It would not be until 1985 when Mel Fisher a Key West based treasurer hunter after searching for it for 16 years found it and would recover almost $500,000,000 (half a billion $) of treasure from it. Visit the Mel Fisher museum and learn about the glory and tragedies of treasure hunting.

With such valuable cargo being shipped home to Spain it was not long before Pirates, many supported by England or France begun harassing the Spanish fleets. Pirates would continue to be an issue into the 1800’s and it would be President James Monroe who authorized an ant-piracy fleet to be established in Key West. Between 1823-1825 this squadron of 16 ships attacked almost every Pirate hideout capturing, killing or running them off, making Key West the busiest naval port in America.

The U.S. began constructing light houses to warn ships off the reefs in 1852 thus significantly reducing the number of shipwrecks and killing the profits from salvaging the wrecks. Key West then went through several boom to bust periods, once a big supplier of salt, then cigars (in 1890 there were 129 cigar factories) and finally sponges.

Key West has wonderful boutique hotels, numerous exotic bars, and excellent choice of places to eat. Enrich your child’s education, explore the sea life around Key West, experience the life Hemingway lived, gain a better understanding about global trade starting with the Spanish in the 1500’s. One can fly or take a unique three hour drive from Miami.

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