Key West Travel Guide

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The most important thing to realize is that everyday in Key West is Friday night.

It is one non-stop party, but not obtrusively so. Meaning, if you are thrilled with drinking beer "nakkid on Duval Street at late o'clock in the morning" with a hundred or a thousand of your "new best friends," then Key West is for you. HOWEVER, if you are interested in the natural beauty of a tropical island surrounded by the 3rd largest barrier coral reef in the world, peace, quiet and serenity, then inversely, Key West is also for you.

How? Because the partying is kept in once central location, and the police force is both active and experienced. Even with a world that is only two miles across and five miles long, it's surprising sprawling. Not urban sprawling, but ISLAND sprawling.

Yes, Key West is an island. And on the island of Key West is a city of Key West. And the one compliments the other. The city's public and private bureaucracy and industry manage the infrastructure of the city-side of things, and the nature of the island shines through in every corner, crevice, moment, and activity of living on/in and visiting
 Key West.

It's why Key West is known as Paradise. Most people will welcome you BACK to Paradise - even if you have only been here once. Why? Because Paradise is supposed to be from whence we come and where we return. A nice sentiment.

Over the years, the lush tropical fruits - including the once-bountiful Spanish Limes - have been replaced by equally lush non-fruit bearing trees and plants, mostly due to incomers fear of the once-ubiquitous fruit rat. In any case, Key Limes are, for the most part, are imported in from the Bahamas. (Key Lime pie is made with the bottled juice of the Key Lime, and yes, there is a big difference between pies.)

Cruise ship traffic has become a major factor in daily life on the island, particularly downtown, with 2000 to 10,000 souls dropping in on Key West from the Mallory Square waterfront nearly every day of the week. Mostly, this traffic sticks to the downtown/Old Town corridors. Whitehead Street (Mel Fisher Museum, Green Parrot Bar, Hemingway House) and Duval Street in particular.

The Historic Key West Bight, as it is called, is home to a number of famous restaurants, bars, shops, and fishing charters and watersport operators. It once housed commercial fishing, crabbing, and shrimping boats, and it still does, but for the most part Historic Key West Bight is a fun and low-key area for fun.

Duval Street as mentioned above is Key West's main "drag." It is home to an infinite number of t-shirt shops (half of which routinely display "Going Out of Business" signs), many restaurants ranging in quality from atrocious to amazing, several franchised operations, sales booths for watersports, tours, and other island-wide activities such as jetskiing, sunset sailing, reef snorkeling, etc., and any number of Key West street performers, oddballs, recluses, castaways, and general characters. Duval Street is to Key West what Bourbon Street is to New Orleans. Not exactly, but close enough.

Another popular attraction is Mallory Square, but only at sunset. Around one hour before sunset up until an hour afterwards, Mallory Square is transformed into a carnival and marketplace of street performers, vendors, craftspeople and artisans. Adjacent cuban restaurant Meson De Pepe is also hub of cross-over activity, supplying drinks, food and live music to overflow crowds. Located at the "left end" of Duval, just follow the crowds towards the setting sun.

Beaches are somewhat of a touchy subject. Fantasies of palm trees and coconut drinks aside, Key West is not a "beach island." Partially owing to the coral reefs which Key West is famous for, the sand on the beaches of Key West varies from pebbley...to rocky. And the Higgs and Smathers Beaches on the Island's Eastside are both shallow, murky, and smelly. The best beach the island has to offer is Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. There is a nominal fee to enter the park, and compared to the other beaches on Key West, it is worth it.

Incidentally, there is a beach approximately 40 minutes up from Key West which is also a state park. It is called Bahia Honda, it has been voted top 10 in the US several times, and it is the best the Keys has to offer with regards to sandy, luscious beaches.

On the subject of Fort Zachary Taylor, it is an old pre-civil war fort with a rich history. Originally, the fort was surrounded by water on all sides, with a walkway linking it to the mainland. But now it is surrounded by land, and on the fort's Southside is the beach. Included in price admission to the park is both the considerably interesting fort as well as the shaded beach.

Other attractions include the Key West cemetary (the graves are above ground because of the "hard" coral limestone), the Southernmost Point in the US (at the Southeast end of Whitehead Street), the Key West Lighthouse, Harry Truman's Little White House, and the, of course, the Mel Fisher Museum.

Getting around the island is "do-able" by foot, but if you have limited time, renting bicycles, scooters, or electric cars may be the way to go. Sunshine Rentals has a unique website - sunshinekeywest.com - which "televises" a live agent from Key West via the internet to answer any of your Key West question and to book transportation and activities. It's very entertaining, but more importantly it's also worth checking out.

Lastly is the food. Restaurants are as much a part of the daily life of Key West as the ever-present chickens, cats, and roosters. In keeping with this tradition, Blue Heaven is arguably the most popular restaurant on the island. Somewhere between an island speakeasy and a fine dining establishment, Blue Heaven has developed a reputation based on its funky indoor/outdoor dining, tiki bar, and haute island cuisine. Not to be missed for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Another very popular dining destination is Pepe's, something of a miniature version of Blue Heaven, but about eighty years (!) older and with less chickens. Popular for their seafood and steaks, Pepe's also has service and seating indoor and outdoors.

Just around the corner from Pepe's is B.O.'s Fish House. Popular for their fresh grilled fish, burgers, and sandwiches, B.O.'s, while often mistaken for a shanty house, is just about as much a contemporary Key West destination as Sloppy Joe's.

On the upscale side, Michael's for steaks, A&B Lobster House for seafood, Louie's Backyard for the breath-taking view, and La Trattoria for Italian are sure to satisfy all tastes.

After dinner, nightlife is bar-oriented. (Key West is NOT a "nightclub" destination.) The Green Parrot has been open as a bar since 1890, and is perhaps Key West's most renowned un-touristy bar. (Sloppy Joe's would hold that honor.) Great music is available at Green Parrot for free (!) by nationally-touring acts throughout the week. In other locations, expect to hear Jimmy Buffet/Bob Marley/Jack Johnson or "tropical-ized" classic rock covers. Captain Tony's on Greene Street is notable as the "Original Sloppy Joe's," and Captain Tony - one-time confidant of Ernest Hemingway and co-founder of the Conch Republic - is available for consultation (mostly to females, though he is in his 90's) on Thursday evenings.

On the subject of the Conch Republic, natives take their "micronation's" independence status seriously with a grain of seasalt. In any case, Conch Republic t-shirts, flags, and what-all are sold and brandished with pride. For the full story, check out their "embassy's" website at conchrepublic.com.

Consider the above a starter kit to the unique destination that is Key West. One part historical port, one part naturalist's Paradise, one part hedonistic Mecca, and one part outrageously touristy shill town, Key West defies outright definition, a quality which owes a great deal to its lasting and ever-expanding charm.

Contributors

April 06, 2007 change by immikemongo (4 points)

February 17, 2004 new by spectre