Key West lies at the end of the Florida Keys, is the southernmost point in the contiguous Unites States, and is only 90 miles north of Cuba. This small island city possesses a mystique, romantic history, and an energy all its own. From pirates to sponge divers, smuggling to shipwreck salvaging, Key West has a rich history, all of which has found its way into the local mythology, and produced a unique mindset in both its citizens and visitors. Originally named Cayo Hueso by the areas’ first Spanish inhabitants, the name meant “Bone Island.” Local legends say that a war between native tribes resulted in a boneyard on the beaches, hence the name. There is some debate over whether the modern name of Key West derives from this, as English-speaking settlers may have thought the Spanish hueso sounded like the English west. Whatever the case may have been, you’ll see many references to Cayo Hueso in various business and place names on the island.
While on the Island, you are likely to hear the residents referred to as “Conchs,” and to hear the island itself referred to as the “Conch Republic.” The term “Conch” originally referred to European immigrants who settled on the island by way of the Bahamas. In the 20th century, the term came more and more to refer to all residents of the island. In the early 1980’s, Key West declared itself the “Conch Republic,” and announced its secession from the United States. While this was simply a marketing ploy to increase tourism, the “secession” took on a life of its own. Now, every year in late April, the city holds the Conch Republic Independence Celebration (http://www.conchrepublic.com/schedule.htm), with events such as bar crawls, parades, an air show, mock battles, and more-all celebrating the island’s rich historical and cultural heritage. Be sure to pick up a Conch Republic passport while you’re there. Numerous travelers have reported that they have actually gone thru Customs in various countries and successfully presented their Conch Republic passport. We won’t be held responsible for any resulting issues, but it’s a great souvenir!
Most first-time visitors to Key West may be a bit disappointed with the beaches. As a more-or-less tropical island, most people probably conjure images of miles of palm-tree lined shoreline to get their tanning on. Unfortunately, the coral reefs prevent the wave-action necessary for beach formation. Key West’s reefs are the only living coral reef system in North America, and the third longest barrier reef in the world. Get your mask and snorkel, or break out the scuba gear, and explore this natural treasure! Most of the beaches are man-made, and on the smaller side. This should not prevent you from enjoying them for what they are. Besides, there are numerous other water-related activities to enjoy! With that said, Fort Zachary Taylor Park is one of the more popular beaches, and has all the amenities and facilities for a great day at the beach, including nature trails and bicycling. Be sure to check out the Cayo Hueso Café for lunch, and take a narrated tour of Fort Zachary Taylor, from which the park gets its name.
Things To Do
Sight-seeing activities and recreational sports abound in Key West (http://keywestvisitorguide.com/). As one would expect of an island destination, water-related activities and opportunities are plentiful. The area is a mecca for deep-sea fishing, diving, and snorkeling. Glass bottomed boat tours, sunset cruises, eco tours, and jet-ski tours are also plentiful. For inexperienced divers, there are several operations which offer “resort certification,” and provide access to the area’s beautiful coral reefs in one afternoon. Visitors can also easily day trip to the Dry Tortugas, a series of small islands about seventy miles from the Keys. The Tortugas are a federal nature preserve, and can be accessed via boat or plane tours. The islands offer some spectacular snorkeling in their clear, beautiful waters. We also highly recommend the Ocean Vue Adventures tour. This high-speed hydrofoil tour brings glass-bottom boats into the 21st century. Lasting approximately 2 hours, the tour typically visits wild dolphin areas, shipwrecks, and coral reefs. The boats have the largest viewing area in the industry, and it’s an awesome experience. For more info, check them out here: http://www.oceanvueadventures.com/
We must mention one other nightly event in Key West: the setting of the sun. Florida has spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The sunsets, in particular, bring out colors you truly won’t see anywhere else in the world. Every evening, there is a Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square Dock, complete with arts and crafts vendors, food stands, street performers, and thousands of tourists. Many locals attend this event nightly. Be sure to catch it at least once during your stay!
Things To See
Along with all the water-related activities, Key West offers numerous sight-seeing opportunities. Start things off with a Conch Tour Train ride. The ride lasts about 90 minutes, and is a great way to learn the lay-out of the island, as well as hearing a lot of the local history. Be sure to hit the Hemingway House. The home was owned by Ernest Hemingway for more than a decade of his life, and he crafted or worked on at least four of his novels while in residence. The house also features the first swimming pool on the island. And, there are the cats. Hemingway had a polydactyl (six-toed) cat named Snowball, and many of the cats at the house today are descended from this mutant feline.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is also a great attraction. The museum features the treasures of the Atocha K, a 17th century Spanish Galleon, found and salvaged by Mr. Fisher. It is perhaps the finest collection of sunken treasure ever recovered, and well worth a visit. The Key West Aquarium also makes a fun exhibit for families and solo adults. Audobon House and Tropical Gardens is another fun and interesting tour. The house is a fully-restored Victorian mansion, with period furniture, and a large tropical garden. The star of the show is a very fine collection of original artwork by naturalist and wild-life artist John James Audobon.
Shopping, Dining, and NightLife
Dining in Key West is as easy as walking down the street. Restaurants of various flavors are everywhere. Of course, seafood is plentiful, as one would expect. Local cuisine has a Caribbean slant, but there are plenty of American, and multi-ethnic eateries, as well. You’ll also find a number of Latin American restaurants, due to the Hispanic population, and influenced by the island’s proximity to Cuba. If you’ve never been to a good bodega (steak house), here’s your chance.
Key West is justly famous for its bar scene. There are pubs, bars and clubs to suit just about every taste, from old joints featuring hand-crafted beers to more upscale night clubs, catering to the most hip clientele, and everything in between. No visit to Key West is complete without a stop at Sloppy Joe’s Bar. Made famous by Hemingway (the original owner of the bar was a close friend, and the model for Captain Freddie in To Have and Have Not), Sloppy Joe’s is virtually legendary, as bars go. The original Sloppy Joe sandwich also originated here. We highly recommend having one, because they rock. Night time brings on live entertainment, and the bar features live bands just about every night.
Old Town features numerous tourist attractions, as well quite a few shops of various stripes. You may want to stroll through Bahama Village Market, an open-air flea market, featuring lots of Caribbean flair, as well as shops and restaurants. Just watch out for free-roaming chickens (Really. They wander freely in this section of town). And of course, the Duval Street area has numerous shops.
Places to Stay
As Key West is a relatively small destination, with very high demand, rates tend to be higher most of the year. Weekends in summer, and virtually any holiday or special event weekend will be higher than average. Key West hotels and guesthouses also tend to have stricter cancellation policies than many other domestic leisure destinations. Hotels frequently require advance deposits or full payment, depending on the time of year. To avoid any unpleasant surprises, be sure to read the deposit and cancellation policies, or inquire about them when booking direct. Holiday weekends, in particular, will also have minimum length-of-stay restrictions, as well.
Key West features a number of larger branded and independent resort hotels. Unfortunately, we feel these newer developments somewhat spoil the character of the island. For a more authentic experience, we prefer the smaller guesthouses and B&B’s. One of our favorites is the Eden House, which is Key West’s oldest hotel, located just a few minutes’ walk from Duval Street. The hotel staff is great, and the property offers what we feel is a true “Key West” experience. For those of you who prefer the “big box” resorts, the Casa Marina wins rave reviews, and is very luxurious. The resort also features 1100 feet of private beach frontage.
Key West also has a thriving gay community, and is a favorite for LGBT travelers. In our opinion, the best gay guesthouse in town is the Island House. They’ve also been rated the best gay men’s resort in the world by OUT Traveler. The café and bar also regularly receive rave reviews by guests and critics alike. For another excellent gay-friendly guest house, we recommend the Mermaid and Alligator. This B&B offers lush tropical landscaping, eclectic décor, and is just three blocks from Duval.
Key West is served by Key West International airport, offering connections from a number of Florida cities. As the airport cannot accommodate large jets, connections are via smaller jets and commuter craft. Many tourists choose to fly into Ft. Lauderdale or Miami, and drive the rest of the way. Key West is about 3 hours from Miami, and approximately 4 hours from Ft. Lauderdale, by car. The drive down is quite beautiful, and features the 127-mile long Overseas Highway, portions of which were built over the original railway that connected the Keys to the mainland. As the highway is also an All-American Road in the National Scenic Byways program, you might want to allot more time for the drive, as there are numerous scenic stopping points and photo ops along the way. Be aware, too, that high demand periods, such as holiday weekends, can create longer traffic delays.
Key West Express offers high-speed ferry service from Fort Myers and Marco Island. The ride down is about 3.5 hours. The ferries do not accommodate cars, so if you plan to stay longer than a day, you’ll want to get a rental car. You can check them out here: http://keywestexpress.us/default.html
By rail-Amtrak offers service to Fort Lauderdale. From there, you’ll either want a rental car to complete the trip, or you can catch the Keys Express shuttle service from Fort Lauderdale or Miami International airports. For rates and info, check them out here: http://keysshuttle.com/
Of course, if you’re boater, just plot your course, and pull into an available marina slip. They’ll be happy to see you! For the pirate or the poet, Key West will steal a little piece of your heart. For the rest of us, the scenery is still breathtaking, the breezes are fine, and the water is waiting to welcome us with its warm embrace.
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