(The VMO is way off topic today, hope you don’t mind. In fact, a little serendipity is good for the soul. I’ll be back to law firm topics next week…with a post on law firm business cards: part II. Meanwhile if you’re curious, I hope you read and enjoy this post about Key West, Florida.)
Key West, Florida | Close to Perfect, Far From Normal
“Anyone will tell you Key West is a little kooky – and darn proud of it. In the words of one local: ‘It’s like they shook the United States and all the nuts fell to the bottom.’ The town’s funky, laid-back vibe has long attracted artists, renegades and free spirits. Part of that independent streak is rooted in its physical geography: barely connected to the USA, Key West is closer to Cuba than to the rest of the States. There’s only one road in, and it’s not on the way to anywhere. In other words, it’s an easy place to do your own thing.
Because of its handy proximity to absolutely nothing, it’s been immune to corporate interference. Chickens and six-toed cats have their run of the island. Bikes are the favored means of transportation. And few people work nine to five.”
–Lonely Planet (travel website)
I live in Key West, year round. I know, I know… how does a small town girl from Pennsylvania possibly endure the absence of changing seasons? Fact is, our seasons do change: from hurricane season to mosquito season, from lobster season to mango season, from dry season to rainy season, and of course, the most famous season of all…. tourist season (referred to by locals as simply “season”).
Every year I get a dozen or so requests for info about the Conch Republic—Southernmost City—Mile Marker 0—Cayo Hueso (Bone Island)—from friends, colleagues and family. So, in the winter “holiday season” spirit, I thought maybe others planning a trip this way might find some suggestions from the list of the things I LIKE to do in Key West. These are by no means comprehensive, nor will they be to the likings of everyone. And, there is way too much to do and see in KW to list them all here. Still, I thought a local perspective might be useful all the same…
My suggestion for a four-day Key West agenda:
Day one: Play, Eat, Rest, Play, Sleep.
Day two: Play, Eat, Rest, Play, Sleep.
Day three: Play, Eat, Rest, Play, Sleep.
Day four: Play, Eat, Rest, Play, Sleep.
If you’re planning a longer stay, rinse and repeat:
Play, Eat, Rest, Play, Sleep…
(Disclosures: (1) I am in no way affiliated with any of these businesses nor am I getting any perks for recommending them. (2) Your experience may vary. Inconsistencies are bound to happen where humans, weather, and other Key West oddities are involved.)
#! RENT A BIKE.
Driving a car in Key West is a pain in the…neck. Parking is either impossible or expensive—getting towed is a hassle. So, rent a bike. It is super easy and cheap and most of the places you want to go are close by, the island is only eight square miles!
If you rent a bike, there are only three things to remember: (1) keep a street map with you at all times because the streets in Old Town are catawampus; (2) obey the traffic laws—one way streets are, well…one way and stop signs and lights mean stop; and, (3) Yes, you can get a ticket for riding a bike while intoxicated—don’t drink and ride! If you opt to rent a moped, beware: They are dangerous in Key West.
PLAY: ON THE WATER
“It’s like… an Island… mon,” a grungy street musician said to a guy sitting next to him on a Duval Street sidewalk one evening as I was passing.
He’s right! Incredible, beautiful, bountiful, gin clear, aqua waters surround Key West and make getting out on the water a priority, IMHO.
#1A Take Me There Charters $$$
Captain Tommy is amazing. He is extremely knowledgeable about the water. His boat is clean and very comfortable. For a few hundred dollars Capt. Tommy will “take you there” (and up to 5 others in your party), where ever you want to go—reef snorkeling, dolphin watching (he knows the dolphins by name!), the secluded beach at Boca Grande, or any remote sandbar where you can hang out in the sun or FISH. If you like to fish, no problem! All gear included. Sure, you could rent your own boat, but then you wouldn’t know all the secret spots that Capt. Tommy knows. This is a hassle free way to spend a day (or ½ day) on the water. He packs a great cooler with lots of ice, water, soft drinks, and beer. Bring a lunch (Cuban Mix from 5 Brothers Grocery—see EATS below). Believe me, Captain Tommy will take you there. He is extremely personable, loves people, and, frankly, it’s the best deal in Key West! Book early.
#1B Yankee Freedom $$$
The Dry Tortugas are stunning—a tie for first with Take Me There. It’s a full day trip, out and back, but worth the time and every penny. Family friendly. (Dramamine suggested for anyone with the potential for motion sickness, as the straits can get a little choppy in the winter months.)
The beach and snorkeling there are pretty awesome—giant Tarpon, Barracuda, fantastic coral forests, and tons of colorful tropical fish. Swimming around the old brick fort wall is like swimming in an aquarium, seriously! Lunch is included and the crew is very accommodating. Walk around the old Fort Jefferson and the attached sandbar beaches. It will probably be the highlight of your trip to sofla—even if you don’t swim!
#2 Snorkel boat to Sand Key or Dry Rocks $
Fury or Sunset $25-35 half-day trip (Internet discount)
If you don’t want to spend a whole day on the water going to the Dry Tortugas, or pay for a private charter, a group snorkel trip to Sand Key or Dry Rocks is a decent way to see some fantastic tropical fish. It’s lots of fun and a low maintenance outing as they provide snorkel gear and instruction. The boat has a snack bar, soft drinks and adult beverages. It’s a group thing and sometimes you’ll be bumping into other snorkelers from the boat in the water, but the reasonable price tag makes it a deal.
#3 Kayaking or Paddle Boarding $
Lazy Dog Outfitters
Hurricane Hole on Stock Island, a short cab ride or bike ride from downtown, will set you up for a fantastic ½ day of paddling. Guided tours or hourly rentals will take you to mangroves, mansions and more. It is great exercise and a nice way to see the eco system of the Florida Keys, see the flats fishermen in action, and snag some derelict lobster bobs from the mangroves for an authentic KW souvenir! After your work out you can “rest” at the Hurricane Hole bar or “eat” at the restaurant—it will not disappoint. Try a fried snapper or grouper sandwich. They have icy cold beer, local color, and cool breezes. Seriously, I like this place for authentic KW atmosphere and food. Sometimes they have live music, but the real attraction for me is the mix of boat fuel, fried fish, and beer. It makes me return time and time again.
EAT: ON THE TOWN
Key West prices can be high in “season,” food quality mediocre, and service so-so, however, over the course of a few days you should be able to procure some really great meals that you cannot get elsewhere in the contiguous 50 states. These are some of my favorites.
#1 El Siboney – Catherine Street. Very casual. $$
Cuban food. Nothing fancy, but totally addicting. Of all the Cuban restaurants in Key West and Miami, El Siboney remains my fav! Expect a waiting line for a table at dinnertime, especially during “season.” If you don’t want to wait, try lunch. Or, sit at the counter for dinner, which can be much more entertaining. Great service. Great food. Smashed garlic chicken or shrimp enchilado, an ice-cold Presidenté beer or home-made Sangria makes a fine, and filling, meal after a day of biking, beaching, snorkeling or kayaking.
#2 Five Brothers Grocery – Corner of Southard and Grinnell $
A queue of locals and snowbirds wait every morning for their fix of café-con-leche. And, there’s a reason for that: it’s worth the wait. A great way to start your day. While you’re there, order a Cuban Mix—all the way—or the Grouper fish sandwich to take on the boat or to the beach for lunch. (You can also call ahead and pick up in 20 minutes.) If you’re feeling a little fuzzy after a night of too many fruity rum drinks, Five Brothers’ cheese bread and café con-leche is an amazing remedy!
#2B Coffee Plantation – Caroline Street
Free Internet access with purchase. Great coffee, lovely ambiance, close to the old seaport, shopping. Pastries! Morning-evening…a real local establishment! Lots of books, newspapers, friendly conversation, and unique gifts too.
#3 Azur – Flemming and Grinnell $$$ or $$$$
My first dining experience at Azur was about 9 years ago for a wine dinner. The sommelier was excellent and the food remarkably paired. Subsequently it remains my favorite distinctive restaurant! Perfect for brunch, lunch, small plates, or dinner, it is located beyond the high traffic tourist area but close enough to walk. And while there is no view of the water or tourist foot traffic, the interior is comfortable upscale and the patio is tropical and pet friendly. The wait staff is above average, typically attentive, and the menu is creative but never pretentious. The owner/chef is usually around and checks in with his guests. A locals’ favorite.
#4 Café Sole – $$$$ Francis and Southard
I go here for the Hog Fish, when it is in “season,” (see I told you we have seasons!) but I always leave thinking the side dishes (vegetable concoctions) are the main event. They are always awesome, wholesome, and tasty without a lot of salt—just butter, butter, butter. Lots of KW restaurants do a good Hog Fish, but Café Sole is always my first choice. I always order sans sauce or on the side. A true Key-West-garden ambiance, they will accommodate groups or a romantic table for two. Call for reservations. I just like this place. Very French. (If you’re looking for more French cuisine, try also La Crêperie in Bahama Village at Petronia and Thomas. An authentic French bistro and a top spot for breakfast or lunch—expect to wait for a table during “season.”)
(Removed #5 due to more recent and disappointing experience 1/12. )
Off the radar, Mo’s serves Haitian French Creole food from a spot that New Yorkers’ might call a whole in the wall joint—only a few tables, a counter and a take out business. Fuggetit! Not a hole in the wall, it is clean, hospitable, and delicious—oxtail is amazing. The ambience is special and the open kitchen will make you feel like you’re at home and mom is cooking up her most delicious secret recipes. I’m not sure where you’re going to get more authentic Haitian/Creole cooking in the U.S. (except maybe in Miami), so if you’re adventurous and want some ethnic food, this is the spot. No view.
#7 Origami. Simonton and Duval. $$$$
I like their sushi, a lot. Nothing especially Key West about this place except for all the locals who frequent it, but if you’re looking for sushi, it is my favorite. Cute open garden courtyard setting in the heart of Duval Square. Plenty of parking for your bike (or your car, if you must).
#7 The Restaurant Store and Cole’s Peace Artisan Bakery. $$
Eaton Street, just beyond the Eaton/White intersection in Old Town you’ll find this homegrown establishment has a wonderful, healthful collection of sandwiches and a nice, but small, selection of wine. Their bread is amazing. You can also grab a loaf if you’re in Fausto’s Food Palace (the ONLY, and thus the best, full service grocery store in Old Town). There are a few outdoor tables, but no view. Get your sandwich and a bottle of wine to go (keep it in the brown bag), then head over to Mallory square, sit on the seawall, and watch the boats go by, or ride to Higg’s Beach, grab a picnic table, and watch some volley ball.
#8 Turtle Kraals $$ or $$$ Old Seaport
The only reason I add this is because if you’re at the old seaport, have to eat, and don’t want to spend a lot of money, Turtle Kraals is a good-enough option. Family dining and the proportions will satisfy. Great views of the harbor from most tables. They also serve a good and hearty breakfast. Another notable breakfast stop at the Old Seaport is Harpoon Harry’s—expect a wait on weekends. One of the few places that makes grits!
REST: ON THE BEACH
As far as I’m concerned there is only one beach in Key West—Ft. Zach. Beautiful water, great view of the channel, delicious shade trees, grills, clean bathrooms, snack bar, and some of the nicest snorkel spots right off the beach. You can rent snorkel gear, chairs, umbrellas, and even kayaks from the concession.
Getting in and out of the water in bare feet is not for sissies. Remember, this isn’t the Bahamas—it’s Cayo Hueso-Bone Island. Some say named for the skeletons that once littered the shores, I say because of all the coral, which when dry is essentially bone! Ft. Zach beach is mostly coral bed, but it’s worth it! Bring water-shoes or footwear if you don’t have tough feet. This beach is family oriented. Best of all, radios are RARE.
Some other things to note about Ft. Zach:
- The road into the beach from the gate is a bit of walk, especially on a hot day (no shade). If you don’t have a bike (or a car), you may want to plan for a cab.
- The old Fort tour is pretty interesting.
- Migrant birds pass through Ft. Zach and there can be some terrific sightings at certain times of the year.
- In the summer months you’ll see spectacular fish that aren’t always there when the water is cooler during “tourist season,” but there are always plenty colorful tropical fish like Parrot Fish, Sergeant Majors, Yellow Tail, and Blue Tang. Certain times of the year you might see loggerhead turtles and lobster, juvenile barracuda and fantastic schools of Tarpon. Occasional sightings of manatee and dolphin.
#2 Bahia Honda $$
The most BEAUTIFUL beach in all of the Keys, traditional soft, white sandy tropical beach (although in some “seasons” sea weed on the shore), Bahia Honda is a state park and worth the 45-minute drive up the Keys and price of admission, approx. $10, if you’re looking for something special. Luscious sand bars, kayak rentals, hiking, and picnic tables (take that sandwich from Five Brothers!). Make sure to walk the old railroad bridge—a fantastic backdrop for photos. This is the only beach in the Keys where you can take a LONG, ROMANTIC walk. It’s big.
SLEEP: ON A BED
I have never been a hotel guest in Key West, but I’ve put plenty of visitors in them. You will be spending very little time in your room so what’s the difference, right? However, if you’re looking for something extra special, here are three good ones.
The Gardens Hotel $$$$$ (in season)
The garden at the Gardens is special. Add to that an interesting local staff, 5 star services, concierge, large pool, tropical bar, wine tastings, grand piano, a pet tortoise, and jazz on Sundays and you get a perfect combo resort/guest house feel. Centrally located. Traditional. Extravagant. Highly recommended.
The Casa Marina $$$$$ (in season)
Private beach with imported soft white sand! Great onsite dining choices, both indoor and outdoor, this is the closest thing to an all in one resort on the island. Fantastic pool and a slew of planned activities for kids and grown ups. Plus: public tennis across the street. A friend brought his two young daughters for a weekend get-away and they never left the resort! They loved it! Free bikes, plenty of parking, the “Casa” is a historic landmark now being managed by Marriot, under the Waldorf Astoria brand, so you can use your Marriot points! It is close to downtown but still quiet and peaceful. When you walk on this property you feel like you’ve arrived.
PET FRIENDLY. Cozy, clean, charming accommodations with location, location, location. (Off “season” rates here are a bargain.) Decent outdoor space with a serviceable pool, but the beauty is that you are just two blocks off Duval Street and you can easily walk or bike everywhere and yet still feels away from it all. I have friends from Miami who come here three times every year and they love it.
PLAY: ON THE LAND (Family Friendly Attractions)
West Martello Tower. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Martello_Tower
Home of the Key West Garden Club, I am always amazed and delighted at the variety and beauty of our plant life on Key West.
Butterfly and Nature Conservatory http://www.keywestbutterfly.com/
Small, but special and unique.
Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center. http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/news/features/0107_ecocenter.html
Make sure to watch the 25-minute video presentation.
Key West Aquarium. http://www.keywestaquarium.com/
Small by most standards, but interesting all the same.
Hemingway House. http://www.hemingwayhome.com/
Popular…but I’ve never been inside!
Truman Little White House. http://www.trumanlittlewhitehouse.com/
Beautiful grounds. Quiet and relaxing. Off Mallory Square.
Flamingo Crossing. 1105 Duval Street. Allegedly the best ice cream anywhere, if you can get past the attitude…think Soup Nazi (Seinfeld episode). Tourists rave, locals crave.
PLAY: ON THE TOWN
Some people come to Key West specifically for the Duval Street bar crawl. Not my scene, but it can’t be denied a little attention especially in “season.” All the bars on Duval Street are pretty typical: loud music, generous pours, and lots of tourists. These are the more noteworthy, though dubious, establishments.
Virgilio’s (in the back):
Quaint garden bar with an always interesting mix of locals and visitors. Live music every evening, hit or miss on quality. Only decent place to dance on Duval if you’re over 40. Your experience may vary.
Schooner Warf Bar: Old Seaport. Legendary atmosphere, view of the marina, live music, and the fish and chips are good. The bar is interesting. Go there to experience an authentic outdoor Key West bar (dogs welcome if leashed) and buy a t-shirt, which are pretty nice. At the foot of William Street on the Historic Harbor Walk, Schooner Warf Bar really is…”A Last Little Piece of Old Key West.”
Margaritaville: As a long time visitor to Key West, I never went to Jimmy Buffet’s original Margartiaville until last year when my daughter visited. I have to say it was surprisingly fun! The Margaritas were very yummy. The bar tender was attentive, told great stories, and even snapped our photo. The food wasn’t bad either. Live music most afternoons and evenings. (Actually very family friendly during the daytime and they have a really fun gift shop. Say hello to Loretta!)
Green Parrot: Live music, crowded bar, historic late nightspot. Lots of serendipity. Locals and tourists. A classic and not to be missed if only to say “been there, done that.”
Irish Kevin’s: There is no other place in the U.S. like Irish Kevin’s, but then, that’s a good thing. What you’ll find is a loud, live, solo singer/songwriter musician belting out a repertoire of drinking songs, thus attracting extremely drunken youth. With all the weddings in Key West, this is the in-place for pre and post-wedding drinking parties. Are you seeing a theme here? Step in side for a minute, look around, shake your head, and move on.
Cowboy Bills: Country music and bull riding. Never been, but heard it’s a hoot if you want to holler!
Captain Tony’s: Claims to be the original site where Hemingway hung out in the day. There’s a big tree in the middle and usually live music.
A few other Key West classics include: Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, (or Ft. Zach beach if you’re not interested in crowds), Blue Heaven (key lime pie with real meringue or so I am told as I’ve NEVER eaten there!), B.O.’s Fish Wagon on Caroline (Conch Fritters), and Southernmost Point—got to take a photo there! Most tourists go to Sloppy Joe’s and/or Hog’s Breath Saloon, but I’ve yet to understand the attraction.
Tennis? Bayview Park on Truman. Pick up a game. The locals are friendly and it is some of the best tennis anywhere. Early morning or evenings are best.
For a local perspective on the oddities that make living in Key West close to perfect, far from normal, check out Key West Story Blog, and buy the novel, Key West Story, by Rick Swkiot, available January 2012 on Amazon and other great books stores. Disclaimer: My company, Antaeus Books®, Inc. is the publisher
That’s a wrap! See you in Key West!