[Originally published Jan. 2, 2005, edited for blogosphere.
Updates and comments are encouraged, I will try to return before Opening Day 2007.]
KEY WEST, Fla. -- It wasn't so long ago that extreme travel was something for everyone. During the 1960s America's roadside attractions were promoted by being the biggest, tallest and always rolling under a bridge of sighs. Just pull over and size it up.
The Southernmost Hotel is that kind of place.
Located on the far south end of Key West, the hotel is the closest you can get to sleeping in Cuba......
....I began staying at the Southernmost in the late 1970s when it was still the funky Southernmost Motel (in U.S.A). It had a queasy aqua/Sea World motif and rooms featured rickety hand-operated screen windows. I always felt I was in a Sam Shepard play when I stayed at the Southernmost. I chose the place just because of its name. How cool was it to stay at the "Southernmost Motel in U.S.A."? (I've also stayed at the tallest hotel in America, the 73-story Renaissance Center, built in 1977 in downtown Detroit.)
The Southernmost Motel's 1963 brochure reinforced the far away image. Check out this text: "Rooms constantly caressed by soft, invigorating Trade Winds. Every vacation moment is memorable with the satisfaction that comes from gracious living in the Tropics."
Some 25 years since my first visit, the little motel has grown into a fancier Southernmost Hotel & Resorts, controlling 194 rooms. It has changed, just like Key West. The hotel complex is beautiful, surrounded by lush tropical foliage and Bahamian white balconies. The hotel exterior is painted in a
laid-back beige and Key Lime green. Current ownership consists of four partners from Detroit -- of course. In 1985-86 they combined the 53-room Southernmost Motel and the former 44-room Southeast Ocean Inn. In 1989 they added a three-story wing with 30 rooms.
The Southernmost Hotel features two heated swimming pools, a tiki bar that is open daily until 11 p.m. and a poolside conference room. Always a popular stop for roadies, the hotel even features the only permanent motorcycle washing station in Key West. The motel supplies soap, towels, washrags and a hose. Highway 1 (a k a The Overseas Highway) is a stunning drive out of Miami, but by the time you arrive in Key West, you need a makeover.
In 1985 the Detroit ownership also purchased The Sun n' Surf Motel (motor inn), which is now Southernmost On the Beach. The 28-unit Sun n' Surf was built in 1954 along the Atlantic Ocean for a cost between $75,000 and $80,000, according to the Key West Citizen.
Before Key West exploded into the tourist destination it is today, the south end of the island was a popular destination for gay clients. During the 1970s, eternally cheery comic Paul Lynde drank in the bar of the recently razed Santa Maria Motel, a block away from the Southernmost. Today, the hotel is a also home for bands performing at the nearby Green Parrot, 601 Whitehead (305-294-6133), the best tavern in Key West.
"Somewhere I have a picture of Tennessee Williams on our beach here," said Southernmost Hotel general manager Matthew Babich. "He used to stay at the original Southermost Motel. Ex-Boston Red Sox Fred Lynn has stayed here a few times."
And the Southernmost Hotel always will have the Chicken Store across the road.
The Chicken Store opened in February 2000 in a former tanning salon at 1229 Duval, just north of the Southernmost Hotel. The storefront shop is a home for relocated roosters and injured and orphaned
chickens. When I visited the Chicken Store in October, owner-founder Katha Sheehan had an inventory of nearly 40 chicks.
The Chicken Store has been a bone of contention for some residents because of early morning territorial cock-a-doodle-doos. The noise doesn't bother Babich and it's only bothered me on my last-call walk home from the Green Parrot. (In true Key West style, the Chicken Store is next door to the Scrub Club, which offers erotic modeling, fantasy role playing and other extreme pastimes for men at 1221 Duval.)
"If you have problems with them crowing at night chickens, not Scrub Club customers, we offer free ear plugs," Sheehan said. "One thing that gets them going are people retiring from the bars driving by with the boom box going in their car. That wakes them up. This is one of the noisiest towns I've ever lived in and chickens are the least of it. We don't have large features to break up sound and since Hurricane George we lost a lot of our big ficus trees. They're not likely to be replanted since they're yard hogs."
Sheehan was lugging around a big bag of chicken scratch when I just dropped in to see what condition her chickens were in. "This started when I was a volunteer at the local animal shelter," she
said. "I was working with dogs but I noticed they received calls about nuisance chickens, orphaned chicks, injured chickens. And it always was, 'We don't do chickens.' But to me chickens seemed a
very significant part of wild-domestic animals here."
The Key West "gypsy chicken" is a descendent of the first fighting gamecocks brought to the Florida Keys (first pegged "Isle of Bones") by the original Spanish who arrived by galleon with tools and livestock on board as well as Bahamian settlers who became the first Conchs. These fowl later interbred with a stream of bantam chickens brought to Key West from Cuba (occasionally on homemade rafts). And the feisty Cuban cockfighting chicken El Gallo Blanco was so famous, local lore has it that Key West
residents met his boat when it arrived from Havana. Today there are an estimated 2,000 chickens on the tiny 2-by-4-mile island.
"Chickens do us a great favor," Sheehan said. "There's a lot of bugs in the tropics and chickens eat their fair share of bugs. You can't have a better friend than one that's out there eating cockroaches and termites almost day and night. Chickens are omnivores. They'll eat anything from rocks to beef. They eat rocks for their gizzards. It helps their digestion. They don't paint themselves into any evolutionary corner. They always keep their options open. They'll try anything once."
Sheehan knows her chickens. When she was 18, she worked in the chicken section of a kibbutz (communal farm) during a six-month stay in Israel. In 1999 she was certified by the state of Florida
as an animal control officer for the Florida Keys SPCA (Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals.) While working at the shelter, she specialized in Key West gypsy chickens. In 2000 she
opened the store to finance the effort to take care of the chickens.
Sheehan is from Honolulu. She first visited Key West in 1970 before embarking on an extreme car trip from the Southernmost city in America to Seattle. Sheehan met her husband, Roy Stone, in Austin,
Texas, in 1982. His family had property in Key West. Sheehan and Stone were married July 1, 1983, and moved to Key West the day after their marriage. Sheehan loves her city as much as her chickens. Key West is the type of place where natives and animals always put their best foot forward. Sheehan smiled as her chickens scampered around snarfing up her chicken scratch.
"Most of these chicks are rescued," she said over a chorus of cackles. "But we do have a few permanent chickens that are blind or disabled. They really are not adoptable. There's no charge to
adopt chickens, but applicants are carefully screened. We did find a home for one blind one as an artist's model. Blind ones can be beautiful, but they don't move around a lot so they're good for
"They're all individuals. The most wonderful revelation for me is that there's as many different chicken personalities as human personalities. There are chickens that are intelligent and responsible and there are chickens that are reckless and hell-bent on self-destruction. There's all kinds of relationships. Most of the hens are serial monogamists, but some of them sleep around. You can tell because their chicks are all different colors."
The Chicken Store has excellent folk art, mugs, T-shirts and greeting cards that support Sheehan's efforts and her three-person staff. Visitors are encouraged to wander around with the chickens and take pictures. "You can go into the Chicken Lounge and interact with them," she said. "Feed them, talk to them, hear them. They are very bright. They are a beautiful adornment to Key West. They give it that special grace and Caribbean feel."
IF YOU GO
The Chicken Store is at 1229 Duval ; (305-294-0070, www.thechickenstore.com, a great Web site that even includes chicken jokes: Why did the chicken cross the basketball court? He heard the referee
> The Southernmost Hotel is at 1319 Duval. (800-354-4455); www.southernmostresorts.com