In my last post, I mentioned that the motto for the Florida Keys is “Come As You Are.” The motto for Key West should be “Anything Goes.”
Key West Is A Way Of Life
Key West is famous for a laid back lifestyle, gingerbread architecture, debauchery on Duval Street (the Key West equivalent of New Orleans Bourbon Street), a daily sunset party at Mallory Square, artists, musicians, and “gypsy” chickens running loose in the streets. Key West is not so much a destination as it is as a way of life, immortalized in song by Jimmy Buffet and a few decades earlier by Ernest Hemingway, who described Key West as the “San Tropez of the poor.”
Camping is expensive in Key West, at $100 and up per night. So instead, we drove the 50 miles from our campsite at Curry Hammock in Marathon, made a plan for what we wanted to do, and got an early start. The drive down is beautiful, with gorgeous waters on both sides of the Overseas Highway.
We parked behind the Police Station, a good central location, and set out on foot to walk Key West. The island is only two miles long and 4 miles wide, so it’s very walkable/bikeable. We started with a tropical breakfast in paradise and ended with sunset at Mallory Square; because we avoided the tourist traps and the hordes of tourists, we had a great time. And because we only got to about one-third of what we had planned to do, we’ll definitely return.
Brunch At Blue Heaven
This funky little restaurant in Bahama Village is a charming and nostalgic throwback to the 70s. Set in a lush tropical garden, dining is al fresco, and neighborhood chickens stroll the dirt floors. The morning we were there, an acoustic guitarist/harmonica player sang a very good rendition of “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay.” The food was fabulous: Florida lobster Benedict with Key lime hollandaise, an omelet stuffed with the same, and mimosas made with fresh squeezed Florida orange juice.
The Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
We enjoyed a couple of hours exploring the excellent exhibits of the native habitats, plants, and animals of the Keys. There’s a very cool mock-up of Aquarius, the underwater ocean laboratory; an aquarium with tropical reef fish and corals; and a wonderful film with 3-D glasses that makes you feel just like you’re snorkeling on the reef. It’s well worth a visit, and amazingly, it’s free.
The Key West Butterfly Conservatory
This beautiful 5,000 square foot conservatory looks like a Victorian greenhouse. Filled with tropical plants and water features, every comfort is provided for the 50 or more species of butterflies that fill the air like floating flower petals. The butterflies like it humid and 85 degrees, which isn’t the most appealing temperature for us. But we thoroughly enjoyed the hour or so that we lingered there.
Sunset At Mallory Square
Every evening, an hour or two before sunset, locals and tourists gather at Mallory Square to watch the sun set at the southernmost point of the U.S. This tradition has evolved into a circus, with fire jugglers on unicycles, tarot readers, musicians, and cats walking tightropes. Vendors hawk pineapple coladas, fresh coconut drinks, conch fritters, and dorky looking palm frond hats.This is the quintessential Key West.
A note on visiting Key West: Although we had a great time in Key West and would happily return, I liked Key West best in the 70’s and early 80’s, before gentrification arrived. Unfortunately, that often seems to be the destiny for quaint, interesting, artistic little towns. Key West also took a serious hit to its laid-back image when enormous cruise ships started docking in the mid-80s and dumping up to 10,000 passengers a day into the tiny town. Here’s a tip: If you’re going to Key West, check the cruise ship schedule online and choose a day when there are no cruise ships docking. It makes all the difference. Also, if you are intent on avoiding crowds, go the first couple of weeks of December and you’ll be among the locals.