Waking each morning in Key West, I step into another perfect day in paradise. The sun sparkles off the azure waters of the Atlantic Ocean on one side, Gulf of Mexico on the other. The scent of hibiscus, frangipani, bougainvillea and a thousand other varieties of blooms hangs in the heat, which is already climbing through the eighties by a mid-morning in May.
A quick shower is all that stands between me and the remarkable food at Blue Heaven, an unusual restaurant in the heart of the Bahama Village neighbourhood. Mismatched tables are scattered about an outdoor courtyard that is partially paved with the slate pool table tops from days when the place was a billiard hall. I alternate mornings between here and Pepe's Café, a 100-year-old restaurant near the wharf on Caroline Street because I can't decide
which I love more. Both places make their own specialty breads: banana, coconut, almond, key lime. And both offer delicious seafood omelets, specialty pancakes and eggs benedict variations as well as fabulous eye-opening coffee.
Key West is the southern-most point in the Florida Keys, a four-hour drive from Fort Lauderdale if the traffic-gods are with you, closer to five if they're not. It's possible to catch a small plane and fly into Key West but the drive down the Florida Turnpike and US1 is a scenic one. From Fort Lauderdale, you'll pay about $5 in tolls along the Turnpike but once you reach Florida City, US1 is toll-free, though mostly two-lanes through the Keys. This route gives you an opportunity to stop at Baby's Coffee at the 15 mile marker to pick up a few pounds of locally blended and roasted java for the long months back at home. You'll thank me later.
The island of Key West is roughly two miles wide, four miles long and rises only 18 feet above sea level at its highest point, a spot of land cuddled between sky and sea - blue all around and lush green in the middle. As Key West is located just 90 miles north of Cuba, Cuban, Haitian and Jamaican influences are evident in food, cigars and explosions of colour. Old Town comprises only a portion of the whole island and contains most of the restaurants, accommodations, bars, cultural and leisure activities. The best way to get around is on foot or by bicycle or scooter, both of which are readily available for rent by the day or half-day. Car rentals are also available but streets are narrow and parking is almost non-existent so a 4-wheeled vehicle can be an unnecessary headache.
Key West has a long history of lawlessness with rum-running, drug smuggling and pirateering. There are still many old-time residents willing to tell tales of the wild-west atmosphere that existed up until about fifty years ago. Key West has changed. It has become more civilized, though still on the outer edge of refined. There are many clues to the independent nature of these island folks but the atmosphere has mellowed. The Conch Republic, as some refer to Key West, is a place of open-mindedness and acceptance, as suggested in their self-professed motto "One Human Family". The town is guided by a love of artists, writers, musicians and is a welcome home for a relatively large gay and lesbian population. The arts are well-represented through song-writers and visual arts festivals, workshops, and the Tropic Cinema which hosts art films, classics, first release films and an opera series. Dance studios, writers' groups and literary programs abound and there is even an active Key West Symphony Orchestra.
If history is your passion, you'll find lots here to capture your interest. The Custom House, built in 1890, has undergone an 8-million dollar restoration to become the Museum of Art and History. Guided tours are offered many times daily on the Old Town Trolley and the Conch Train as well as walking tours. All over Key West you will see historical buildings dated from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most have been restored and are now B&Bs, Inns and Guest Houses. Fine examples of classic revival and Bahama-style architecture can be found on every side-street. Ernest Hemingway's Key West home is a popular site, furnished with his personal items and pictures, it includes his studio as well as many descendents of his beloved 6-toed cats.
Mel Fisher and the surviving members of the Fisher family have helped put Key West on the map as a destination for divers and treasure hunters. The Mel Fisher's Treasures Museum documents the story of the famed treasure hunter who struck it rich after decades of believing "today is the day" on his search for the remains of the Atocha and Margarita, the Spanish galleons that sank during a hurricane on September 6, 1622, near Key West.
Duval Street boasts 14 blocks of stores, shops, art galleries and bars. The sounds of Duval resonate from late morning until well past midnight with live music pouring out onto the streets from landmarks such as Irish Kevin's, Sloppy Joe's, Captain Tony's, The Bull, Hog's Breath Saloon, Fogarty's and newer additions to the Duval landscape such as Hard Rock Café. On every corner you'll find kiosks with eager salespeople peddling fishing and sunset sailing excursions, biplane rides, snorkeling, diving and parasailing. At the northern end of Duval, near where it meets Front Street, at the tip of the island where the gulf meets the ocean, you will find Mallory Square. During the day, Mallory Square is nothing more than an empty, sun-drenched, interlocking-brick dock with a backdrop of shops, hotels, museums and an air-conditioned mall (which, by the way, has on the second level, the cleanest public
restrooms you'll find anywhere). Around 6:30, the crowds start to gather at Mallory Square and craftspeople begin setting up to show their wares. This is reported to be the best location from which to watch the glorious sunset with its elusive green flash. (I've yet to see the flash though I've enjoyed the sunset many times from here.) In addition to artists, jewelers, and craftspeople, buskers attract circles of admirers. Among the regulars you'll see a tight-rope walker, fire-eater, acrobats, mimes and the famous "Catman" who has trained cats to perform circus tricks, for example - jumping through a flaming ring. Unbelievable on so many levels!
Slightly away from Duval and Mallory Square, along the Key West Historic Seaport, there are a multitude of bars and restaurants ranging from fine dining to open-air, vintage bars (my favourite of the 'low-brow' venues is the Schooner Wharf Bar) and eateries, with a view of the water and the wharf and a comfortable atmosphere. On the west side of Duval, at the corner of Southard and Whitehead, The Green Parrot bar has been serving locals since 1890 with its open-air, casual flair. Its legendary jukebox, live music, great bartenders and motto, "No Sniveling" pretty much define the place.
I can almost guarantee that by the end of your vacation, you'll be scanning the flyers and windows of the Real Estate Offices to scope out the possibilities. Here's where the charm ends. Houses sell for prices that are out of this world, even now. Perhaps it's a much better place to visit than to live anyway. At least, that's what I keep telling myself.
Janet Hepburn lives in Port Dover and writes regular articles in a weekly newspaper as well as poetry and fiction. She is an active member of Canadian Authors' Association and the Ontario Poetry Society.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
If you go
www.greenparrot.com: Green Parrot Bar, Southard & Whitehead St., ph 305-294-6133
www.blueheavenkw.com: Blue Heaven, Petronia & Thomas St., ph 305-296-8666
www.schoonerwharf.com: Schooner Wharf Bar, 202 William St., 305-292-3302
www.babyscoffee.com: Baby's Coffee, mm15 US1, 1-800-523-2326
www.historictours.com: Conch Train Historical Tours, $28 pp for 90-minute tour
www.tropiccinema.com: Tropic Cinema, 416 Eaton St., 305-295-9493
www.Compass-Realty.com: Truman Annex, vacation & long-term rentals,
www.SantiagosBodega.com: Santiago's Bodega, tapas-style restaurant, 207 Petronia St.
www.melfisher.com: Mel Fisher's Treasures, 305-295-7925,
www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrQoFaz0Pw8 (where l = lower case L and 0 equals zero):
The Catman at Mallory Square
Key West Chamber of Commerce: http://www.keywestchamber.org/
What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.arabji.com/Jordan/media.htm
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Maps (Mapquest) U.S. & Canada: http://www.mapquest.com/maps/main.adp
Maps (Mapquest) World: http://www.mapquest.com/maps/main.adp?country=GB
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
"We welcome our readers' input and personal travel tips. To share feedback on this article, please click below."
Others have made submissions which you may find of interest:
View Article Comments
Meet Great Writers
On These Pages|
Search For Travel Articles
Informative articles organized
by your favourite writers.
Destination Index by Author