While many travelers head to the Conch Republic for annual events  like Hemingway Days and Fantasy Fest, most visitors come to tour the Florida Keys' year-round attractions. One of my favorites is the brainchild of Pat Croce, a man with a fierce passion for pirates – and a desire to share with others one of the world's largest and most authentic collections of pirate-related artifacts.
Designed by the same folks who created Washington D.C.'s fascinating International Spy Museum  and situated near the corner of Front and Ann Streets in Key West's Old Town, the Pirate Soul Museum  (524 Front St., 305/292-1113, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun., $15 adults, $9 children 10 and under) offers a family-friendly, Disneyesque look at nearly 500 bona fide relics from some of the world's most cutthroat pirates, including Blackbeard's blunderbuss to the journal of Captain Kidd's last voyage. Despite the amusement park vibe of this relatively compact museum, it's indeed a fascinating look at the rough-and-tumble lifestyle of the fearless, swashbuckling individuals who survived – and, in many cases, thrived – on the high seas, forever captivating the imaginations of subsequent generations. To the skeptics that might discount a tourist hot spot like the Pirate Soul Museum, I'd also add that the artifacts here are truly impressive, the sort you might even see at a venerable institution like the Smithsonian.
Upon entering the museum on your self-guided tour, you'll initially find yourself on a cobblestoned street in Port Royal, Jamaica, once known as the "world's most wicked city." With twinkling lanterns mounted along the walls and the random sounds of a busy village in the background, you'll stroll past several enticing storefront windows, marked by old-fashioned signage and displaying artifacts from the late 1600s and early 1700s, such as pistols, swords, cutlasses, medical tools, navigational instruments, an old Spanish treasure map, varied pottery and pewter dishes, and assorted old books, including Dutchman Alexander Esquemelin's The History of the Buccaneers of America: Containing Detailed Accounts of Those Bold and Daring Freebooters, originally published in the late 1600s. Along this thoroughfare, you'll also be able to peer into a “house of pleasure,” where you're treated to amusing audio-visual recordings of the innkeeper and his ladies. Near the end of the Port Royal exhibit, you'll spot a plaque describing the 1692 earthquake that virtually decimated the town – a fate that many observers felt it richly deserved.
From here, you'll pass into a tavern-like chamber, the walls of which feature several pirate-themed paintings by Howard Pyle. With the sounds of clinking dishes and tavern chatter in the background, you can peruse various pirate histories at central kiosks and view a variety of artifacts along the perimeter, including pewter tankards, clay pipes, and antique playing cards. One particular sign lists the curious drinks that might have been found in such a “rogue's tavern,” from Bombo to Rumbullion to Blackbeard's favorite, Kill Devil, which was essentially rum laced with gunpowder.
Beyond a thick curtain, you'll encounter a dimly lit wharf, where, amid thumping sounds and other canned harbor noises, you'll see assorted wanted posters and the hanging caged skeleton of Calico Jack, Anne Bonny's doomed lover. Aboard a docked pirate ship, you'll spy an array of weapons, cannons, compasses, and crates, the latter of which you can sniff to determine the specific cargo, including tobacco, butter rum, lime juice, and leather. Here, you'll also spot signs listing typical captain's orders, such as how to fire a cannon or capture a treasure ship.
An especially curious exhibit invites you to sit inside a darkened cargo hold, don a pair of headphones, and pretend to protect Blackbeard's stowed treasure while you experience, through voices, sound effects, and motion technology, the infamous pirate's final battle and ultimate demise. After emerging from the cargo hold, you'll notice a sign describing the dark, crowded, smelly, and unhealthy conditions of most pirate ships. By contrast, the subsequent chamber illustrates how well appointed a captain's cabin could be. Here, you'll find such artifacts as an octant, a sea chest, Black Bart's Code of Conduct, and a classic, black-and-white Jolly Roger flag.
Past this well-lit room, you'll encounter a darkened chamber that focuses on the ill-fated life of Edward Teach (otherwise known as Blackbeard). Features here include a model of Blackbeard's ship, The Queen Anne's Revenge; Blackbeard's hanging, animatronic head, which continually shares first-person tales of piracy; and a small, adjoining cave that contains assorted pirate booty, such as Spanish coins, pieces of jade, a gold flake from Blackbeard's ship, and a pirate chest with a trick lock. From here, you'll find your way to the gift shop and back to Front Street, where you'll spot the Rum Barrel  (528 Front St., 305/292-7862, 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Sun.) right next door. As the name implies, this lively restaurant and bar offers a comprehensive rum selection, plus an eclectic menu of rib and chicken dishes, well-prepared steaks, and local seafood – or, as the motto says, “great grub and grog.” In addition, you'll be treated to live folk, reggae, or classic rock music on an open-air rooftop deck, typically on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
For more information about Key West's attractions, consult the Key West Chamber of Commerce  (510 Greene St., 1st Fl., 305/294-2587, 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily), the Key West Visitors Center  (1601 N. Roosevelt Blvd., 305/296-8881 or 877/296-8881, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily), and the Monroe County Tourist Development Council  (1201 White St., Ste. 102, 305/296-1552 or 800/352-5397, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.). In addition, you can refer to Jason Ferguson's Moon Florida  guide as well as my Moon Florida Keys  guide, which will be available this fall. In the meantime, be sure to check out the Pirate Soul Museum on your next visit to Key West. Seeing it in person is, after all, infinitely better than experiencing a virtual tour.
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad  blog and my Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of the Pirate Soul Museum  © 2010 Daniel Martone / Text © 2010 Laura Martone