While my husband, Dan, and I enjoyed our most recent visit to the Pirate Soul Museum , I must admit that we were even more impressed by another treasure-related repository in Key West's Old Town. Just four short blocks away, opposite Mallory Square and the prominent, red-brick Custom House, stands the massive Mel Fisher Maritime Museum  (200 Greene St., 305/294-2633, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun., $12 adults, $10.50 students, $6 children), one of the most intriguing treasure collections and marine archaeology museums in the world – and an inspiring testament to one individual's passion and determination to achieve the seemingly possible.
After climbing the front steps and passing through the entrance, you'll find yourself – rather predictably – in a spacious gift shop, which, besides a bust of intrepid treasure hunter Mel Fisher, features an assortment of books and DVDs about his world-famous discovery as well as souvenir items like cups, T-shirts, and plush pirate dogs. Once you've purchased your museum tickets, you'll begin your self-guided tour in a left-hand chamber that describes Fisher's 16-year search for the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, two Spanish galleons that shipwrecked off the coast of the Florida Keys in 1622. The arduous search, which began in 1969, finally paid off in 1985, when the hull of the Atocha was discovered. Since then, this famous shipwreck has supposedly yielded well over 450 million dollars' worth of treasure. Using placards, photographs, and artifacts, this first exhibit illustrates the initial discovery and explains subsequent mapping techniques as well as the conservation methods required to preserve the various metals, ceramics, precious jewels, and other materials, including rope, wood, and leather, found on the ocean floor.
The next chamber highlights a mere fraction of the multimillion-dollar motherlode that Fisher and his crew uncovered and subsequently preserved after the 1985 discovery. Here, you'll see historic weapons and navigational tools, such as daggers, rapiers, pikes, lances, cannonballs, an enormous cannon, an astrolabe, a compass, and a cross-staff. In addition, one of the 10 gigantic anchors found at the wreck site is on display, as well as galley items such as pots, trivets, corroded skillets, large olive jars, and a two-handed pitcher. Other displays feature practical tools and medical paraphernalia, such as shackles, forceps, and a well-preserved mortar and pestle.
In the adjacent room, you'll find it hard not to be awed by the varied treasures on display, including gold chains, silver coins, copper chunks, tobacco leaves, pearls and amethysts, rings and thimbles, rosaries, an emerald cross, a poison cup, and a gold bar that's almost too heavy to lift with one hand. Especially intriguing is the 78-carat emerald that seems to glow like plutonium.
Following an exhibit about Mel Fisher's life, you'll head upstairs for the La Plata Del Mar (The Silver of the Sea) exhibit, highlighting the diverse collection of silver artifacts that were carried aboard the 1622 Spanish fleet. With holy music playing in the background, you'll stroll past enormous silver bars, various historic drawings, and several display cases, filled with silver reales, spoons, goblets, stirrups, corroded plates, mirror frames, and other intriguing items. In the last two, upper-level rooms, you'll learn about other sunken vessels, including the 1715 Plate Fleet and the Henrietta Marie slave ship, from which clothing, cannons, trade iron, and other items were recovered.
If, after your comprehensive tour, your yen for treasure hunting has yet to be sated, consider stopping by Mel Fisher's Treasures  (800/434-1399, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. daily), a separate retail store in the rear of the museum. Here, you can purchase a piece of the famous Atocha shipwreck, including pearls, emeralds, iron spikes, musket balls, pieces of eight, pendants and earrings fashioned from old Spanish coins, and replica coins crafted from the on-board silver. In addition, you can speak with the staff about investing in the ongoing salvaging efforts of the wreck site – from which underwater explorers are still recovering hidden coins, artifacts, and other interesting, often incredibly valuable finds, including a gold bar uncovered in 2008 and worth an estimated $180,000. Just be prepared to spend a bundle. Being an investor isn't cheap, but neither are the goods in the store, where you might spot an encrusted mystery object with a tiny embedded emerald on sale for $19,999 – or a gold, 18th-century coin on a chain for a mere $22,500. Of course, even gazing at such treasures is worth a few minutes of your time, and in case it's too late in the day to visit this fascinating store, you can always head to the second retail location (613 1/2 Duval St., 305/295-9555, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily), which is open much later.
In celebration of Mel Fisher's legendary achievement, Mel Fisher's Treasures also hosts the annual Mel Fisher Days, a four-day event that typically takes place in mid-July. Honoring the city's treasure-hunting heritage – and the anniversary of Fisher's discovery of the Atocha motherlode – the Mel Fisher Days celebration features, among other activities, a parade, a poker tournament, a free concert, and a bikini contest that offers authentic treasure coins as prizes.
Of course, if you can't visit Key West during Mel Fisher Days, don't worry. The museum itself is open every day of the year. If you come via car or motorcycle, you can either park in nearby lots or find a metered space along adjacent streets. Still, traveling by foot or bicycle is probably your best option, and luckily, the museum offers a free bicycle rack in the front courtyard.
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.
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 Mel Fisher Maritime Museum  © 2010 Daniel Martone / Text © 2010 Laura Martone