Key West can’t really be understood until you’ve hit rock bottom, but rock bottom is easy enough to find on the island. It sits just one foot below sea level not far from Mallory Square, in a dank basement lobster hatchery turned movie theater, where a 14-minute documentary plays on an endless loop.
“A wreck was the most wished-for thing,” says the film, one of the highlights of the Key West Shipwreck Museum, which is devoted to the island’s 19th-century heyday, when residents greeted with morbid glee the news that a ship had run aground, spilling its treasures into the sea. Salvaging wrecks was a dangerous business but a lucrative one, and for a time Key West was not only Florida’s most populous city but the richest per capita in the entire country. And even as such days are long gone, the island’s unshakable belief in its own brand of prosperity theology—that great treasures may be found in wrecked lives—continues to make it a fascinating visit.