At the end of White Street, Key West is quiet. It’s the sunny side of a residential area, and only the curious who drive down Atlantic Boulevard to follow the sweep of the Atlantic Ocean towards the Southernmost Point discover the waves of history, culture, and recreation that converge there.
We found it because of Indigenous Park, which is just across the street from the pier at the end of White Street. Where White and Atlantic meet, we found a section of paved bicycle path. Part of both the Overseas Heritage Trail, which spans the Keys, and the East Coast Greenway, which continues to Maine, it was an important part of our research on this trip. Parking here, you can follow it north for a pretty seaside stretch up to the north end of the island.
With its boisterous crowing, a rooster called our attention to the mangroves on the shoreline beyond the bike path. C.B. Harvey Rest Beach Park is a small park, but it has a handful of picnic shelters along the oceanfront, the mangroves a reminder of how all of the Keys were originally ringed with these island builders. The reason you see so few natural beaches in the Keys is thanks to the offshore coral reefs, that break the mighty waves of the Atlantic well before they reach any of the shores. In such calm saline waters, mangroves thrive.
Stepping towards the pier, we discovered the Key West AIDS Memorial, with names of those lost chiseled in stone reflected in the summer sun. Beyond it, a beach where families frolicked. The sand stretched towards a large mound on the shoreline.
Walking towards the mound, we found an unexpected historic site: the 1860 African Cemetery. That summer, the U.S. Navy rescued 1,432 Africans bound for slavery from three ships headed past this point to Cuba. Having crossed the Atlantic in horrific conditions, nearly 300 died and were buried on this beach. With U.S. help, the survivors sailed back across the Atlantic to Africa and founded the country of Liberia.
The brick mound rising from the sand turned out to be the West Martello, built two years after the Africans were buried. When the Civil War broke out, Key West was an important port of call and crossroads of trade in the South. The East and West Martellos served as lookouts on the Atlantic side; Fort Taylor commanded a view of the shipping route towards New Orleans.
Inside the West Martello, a delight: the tropical gardens of the Key West Garden Club. We felt the thrill of discovery as we slipped between the old and the new, marveling at the sheer size of the trees rising from the interior of the fortress, which had been broken apart in places to provide fill at Fort Taylor.
Planting a garden in a fortress softened the edges of time. Instead of straight military lines, succulents spilled over aged bricks. The elevation gain inside the fort provided great views through the tree canopy of the beach and ocean below.
Even inside the fortress chambers, plants and art claimed the echoing chambers as their own, a stark contrast to the East Martelllo.
We dropped a donation in the box on the way out, as access to these gardens are free. Feeling relaxed after our discoveries at the end of White Street, we were ready to get unpacked and start exploring the rest of Key West.