By Robert Rudney
Key West, the wacko island capital of the Conch Republic, is very much a place apart, a one-time sleepy fisherman’s paradise now transformed into a spicy mélange of redneck bonhomie, Bahamian bounciness, gay insouciance and tourist tackiness. Like New Orleans’ French Quarter, it’s too laid back to take itself seriously. But it can be one hell of a hoot.
You need to start at Mallory Square at sunset for a near-religious set of ceremonies by the universal cult of sun worshippers. Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico on the west end of the island, Mallory Square is inundated by all sorts of folks drawn by the daily rite of “toasting the sun.” The Square also draws the odd assortment of street musicians, escape artists, acrobats, human statues, trained cats, and somewhat friendly drunks.
Once the sun sets, the action shifts to nearby Duval Street, which throbs and vibrates even on Sunday nights. With names like Hog’s Breath and Sloppy Joe’s, the local bars offer a veneer of fisherman’s watering holes that barely cloaks serious food and beverage operations.
And then there are the chickens. Everywhere. Much like a Third World backwater town. Hens and chicks blocking traffic. Roosters crowing at all times of day. You soon realize these feathered friends are an integral part of the landscape and mascot for Key West’s unpretentiousness.
Key West beaches are less than spectacular. The most attractive is probably at Fort Zachary Taylor Park. Better swimming can be found at Bahia Honda State Park on Big Pine Key, about thirty miles up Route 1 from Key West.
Boating excursions come in all shapes and sizes. The reefs around Key West makes for excellent snorkeling and skin diving. For those less adventurous souls, there are glass-bottom boats that visit the reef area. Try to book the sunset cruise and toast the sun with a glass of (nonalcoholic) champagne.
Fishing charters for Papa Hemingway aficionados are plentiful. Hemingway’s home during the 1930s, located at 907 Whitehead Street, is an entertaining (though pricey) excursion. The guides make valiant attempts to exude machismo and denigrate poor Pauline (wife no. 2), who paid for most of the property. The garden is lush, and the furnishings are authentic. Somehow, Papa was able to churn out Death in the Afternoon, Green Hills of Africa, To Have And Have Not, and For Whom The Bell Tolls between fishing expeditions and drinking bouts at Sloppy Joe’s.
Airfare and hotel packages are easy to find. We found a moderate deal on American Airlines, including a week at the Key Ambassador Best Western, a perfectly satisfactory hotel on the south side of the island with a pleasant pool area (and requisite Tiki Bar). There are dozens of other hotels and guest houses in the Old Town for those who want to be closer to the action (and noise).
Restaurants are naturally a-plenty. Turtle Kraal’s, 1 Lands End Village (305) 294-2640, has a well-deserved reputation for seafood. For funky dining, try Blue Heaven, 729 Thomas Street, (305) 296-8666. We recommend the outdoor “patio” where we were entertained by a rather mournful (but talented) singer/guitarist named Blue Lou, not to mention the omnipresent chickens. Between Margaritas, you can try your luck on the rope swing. Take a stroll through the nearby picturesque Bahamian Village after dinner.
Free musical entertainment is available simply by “hanging out.” We listened to some great Cuban music simply by stationing ourselves at one end of Mallory Square close to the outdoor bandstand at El Meson de Pepe (410 Wall Street). Pepe’s, (305) 295-2620, does serve decent Cuban cuisine in an outdoor setting. A couple of hotels offer outdoor music along the docks. So it’s worth a stroll until you hear a beat that appeals to you.
If your thing is to go where the locals go, try the cheerfully grungy Green Parrot, 601 Whitehead Street (305) 294-1663. The bar is lined with what looks like a brochette of fishing charter captains, and the bartenders are adept at ignoring tourist intruders. Have a beer, soak in the atmosphere, and keep an eye out for Papa Hemingway.
When you get tired of restaurants, you might try a picnic on the beach or in one of the parks. Pick up your gourmet supplies at Fausto’s Food Palace, 1105 White Street, (305) 296-5663.
For those who are geography obsessed, you can have your picture taken at the Southernmost Point in the U.S., located at the corner of Whitehead and South Streets. Castro’s Cuba still lurks only 90 miles from Duval Street and the Navy runs a sizable Naval Air Station (with plenty of billets for officers seeking fun in the sun).
Now what did we forget?
Oh yes, Key West is still Margaritaville, and, yes, you can do your Parrothead thing at Jimmy Buffett’s down Duval, (305) 292-1435. But the local blues singers are now intoning the hit song, “Jimmy Buffett Doesn’t Live in Key West Any More.” Seems Jimmy may be sunning in Malibu these days.
By any stretch, Key West is a lot more than a one-man show. It’s an island refuge for those looking to do a little “wastin’ away,” and, yes, there are ample numbers of bars and restaurants to supply shakers of salt, not to mention great seafood, striking sunsets, and gallons and gallons of Margaritas.
Best Western Key Ambassador Resort Inn
3755 South Roosevelt Boulevard
Key West, FL 33040 US
Key West Information