America’s Southernmost City welcomes visitors to the ‘Conch Republic’
Flying Marlins, Jimmy Buffet and Ernest Hemingway are some of the first things that come to mind when dreaming about Key West. Take a closer look: There is more than meets the eye as this hurricane-attracting town provides rich history, a unique culture, mind-blowing dining and eye-of-the-storm adventures.
Drive from Miami to Key West
This is the drive everyone should do once, but only once. Yes, the stretch from Miami down to the Keys is beautiful on Highway One, and this engineering marvel of a bridge/road will impress you. The shades of blue, turquoise and jade are numerous, as you follow the road from island to island. Way before you get to Key West, your inner child will ask, “Are we there yet?” So, break up the drive with a stop at Isla Morada for some conch fritters and a margarita – a great weekend party stop over. Here’s the deal: Spend less time on the road and more time in Key West. Drive there to see the sights, and fly back.
Get acquainted with this sunny, laid-back town by hopping on the Conch Tour Train or Old Town Trolley for an overview of the key attractions. The 19th century architecture of the homes here is stunning, and you’ll quickly realize that almost everything is within walking distance.
Some people spend days in Key West and never leave Duval Street. You’ll soon see why. With bars and restaurants in abundance, this all-night party street will take the place of Bourbon Street until it’s up and running again. Pop in at The Hog’s Breath Saloon – it’s always full of tourists living “la vida loca.” Part biker bar and part party house, it’s mandatory to at least have one drink here. Sloppy Joe’s is famous because old Joe himself was a good friend of Ernest Hemingway. Live music pumps out daily, and the house special, sloppy Joe, is really, really good.
The sunset is a big deal here in Key West. It’s celebrated every day, as a mini-festival breaks out on a pier at Mallory Square. Complete with hoop-jumping cats, this is a party for all ages. Get here early for the best seat, or hop on a sunset cruise.
The Stargazing Cruise on the Schooner Western Union is a stand out activity in a bevy of touristy adventures. Your astrologer tour guide will share slides that show exactly how the stars look over Key West, and then watch as he/she points out constellations over your head. Go way beyond the Big and Little Dipper. Have you ever been able to locate your zodiac sign? You will here. This one fills up quickly (and includes drinks and conch soup), and it should head your list of must-do attractions.
Although Ernest Hemingway didn’t really spend a ton of time here, he sure did leave an imprint. His Moorish-influenced museum/house is a real treat, complete with replicas of his boats, pictures of his life and generations of cats. There is even a fountain made out of a toilet taken from Sloppy Joe’s during a renovation.
How often can you tour the relics of a shipwreck? Another learning experience to uncover the whole story is at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.
Blue Heaven is the place for breakfast. There may be a line, but don’t worry, they’ll have a Bloody Mary in your hand before you are even seated. With fresh omelets, pancakes and more, the real treat here are the roosters who extend their greetings from table to table.
The night we arrived at Pisces, Chef Andrew’s most decadent dishes: lobster, caviar, oysters and strawberries were being paired with champagne – proving that it’s always a party in Key West.
And if key lime pie and a mojito are really what you crave, you just can’t go wrong at Mangoes. James Beard-awarded Chef Paul Orchard fillets some great fish and pasta.
For a true culinary treat, trot down Duval and discover the mastermind that is taking on the world, Alice Weingarten of Alice’s Key West. This quirky chef, who makes it a point to say “hello” to each table, calls her food “New World fusion confusion.” Translation: Asian, Mediterranean and Caribbean ingredients bundled together on unique dishes. This chef has said she likes to put food in front of you and see your reaction.
Non-pretentious and casually elegant, the tropical chic decor here has wide windows, allowing a great view of Duval Street. The menu evolves with many seasonal delights that are an eclectic mix of home cooking, such as Aunt Alice’s magic meat loaf and off-the-wall Cajun spring rolls with hot and sour sauce. The passion salad with baby greens, toasted almonds, goat cheese and mango is the perfect starter; definitely something to be passionate about. Since Julia Child had it on her birthday, you, too, have to have the shortcake with tropical fruit and whipped cream. Really, where else could you try mojo-marinated ostrich tenderloin, served with coconut rice and stir-fried vegetables?
If last year was any indication and if you plan to visit during hurricane season, it may be worthwhile to purchase cancellation insurance. – LMV
Conch Tour Train, 501 Front St., (305) 294-5161, www.conchtourtrain.com
Old Town Trolley Tours, Mallory Square,
(305) 296-6688, www.historictours.com
Hog’s Breath, 400 Front St.,
(305) 296-4222, www.hogsbreath.com
Sloppy Joe’s, 201 Duval St.,
(305) 294-5717, www.sloppyjoes.com
Schooner Western Union, Seaport at the foot of William Street, (305) 292-1766,
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, 907 Whitehead St., (305) 294-1136,
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, 200 Greene St., (305) 294-2633, www.melfisher.org
Blue Heaven, 729 Thomas St., (305) 296-8666
Pisces Restaurant, 1007 Simonton,
(305) 294-7100, www.pisceskeywest.com
Mangoes, 700 Duval St., (305) 292-4606,
Alice’s Key West, 1114 Duval St., (305) 292-5733, www.aliceskeywest.com