Nancy Klingener 2015-02-28 04:37:03
The green-flash sunsets, the Cuban heritage, the schooners, the unsanctioned murals, the fishing, the bikes, the coral reef, the unexpected animal life, the mojitos. There’s so much to love about Key West. But did you know we have a zombie bike ride every Halloween, a beach devoted entirely to dogs, even turtle races every Monday and Friday? Yep, our little, three-by-five-mile island is chock full of weird and wonderful things to delight and mystify. And here, just for you, is our insider’s list of why we love Key West so much. 1 Because you can watch the sun rise and set from the same place. Mallory Square gets all the press, and it’s worth a walkthrough, but White Street Pier is perfectly positioned for a quiet viewing of both the rising and the setting of the sun. And there are plenty of other iconic Key West sunsets off the beaten path: Fort Zachary Taylor State Park (300 Truman Annex, at the southern end of Southard Street), is both a remarkable beach and a perfect sunset-viewing spot. The Sun Sun Bar and Restaurant on the beach at the Casa Marina Resort (1500 Reynolds St.) is another, with sunrise for breakfast, sunset for dinner and drinks. Or there’s the Sunset Pier (0 Duval St.) at the Ocean Key House on the Gulf. And while it requires getting up early, the sunrises here are spectacular—and a lot less crowded. Excellent sunrise-viewing spots include: White Street Pier (1899 White St.), the Sun Sun (1500 Reynolds St.), Higgs Beach (Atlantic Boulevard) and Smathers Beach (South Roosevelt Boulevard). 2 Because you can visit Europe in mere minutes! Forget Paris—Key West is the new expat hub with French, Brits, Poles, Czechs, Estonians and more making Key West their home away from home and bringing their culture (and more importantly, food!) Along the way. From the Old Town Bakery’s (930 Eaton St.) to-die-for brioche, to Croissants de France’s (816 Duval St.) croque monsieur, to La Créperie’s (300 Petronia St.) galettes, to the Pierogi Polish Market’s (3203 Pearl Ave.) Boczek Mysliwski, to Banana Café’s (1215 Duval St.) mulles frite, the options are endless on our little island paradise. 3 Because our bikes rule the roads. This island was made for horses and foot traffic, making bikes the perfect mode of transport today, and there’s no better way to experience it than on the cushiony seat of a Conch cruiser. Choose from several bike rental outfits, including Eaton Bikes (830 Eaton St.), The Bike Shop (1110 Truman Ave.) And Stock Island’s We Cycle (5160 U.S. 1), marked by the whimsical bike sculpture out front. We love and depend on our bikes so much, we customize them with colorful paint jobs and modify them to use as workhorse trailers. 4 Because there be chickens here . . . Strolling the streets as if they own them, or fried and battered from Dion’s gas stations. Yes, the gas station, not KFC. 5 Because this is an island of secret gardens. A surprisingly intricate subtropical jungle, a small outdoor gallery or even just a plain old piece of cement dressed up and artified—these are some of the magical gardens that lie hidden behind that thick layer of sidewalk foliage or Conch cottage exterior. Can’t find a local with a key to these secret gardens? Find your way to some fantastic public outdoor spaces at the Key West Garden Club (1100 Atlantic Blvd.) And the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Gardens on Stock Island (5210 College Road)—and keep an eye out for tours offered by the Old Island Restoration Foundation (oirf.org). To help create your own Key West oasis—vegetative or decorative—go to the MARC Plant Store (1401 Seminary St.), run by one of the island’s favorite nonprofits (Monroe Association for ReMARCable Citizens). 6 Because our cemetery is a social center for the dead and the living. After a catastrophic hurricane in 1847, the city collected what remains it could identify and moved it all to the cemetery’s present location (701 Passover Lane), the highest and most central part of town. Learn more from the Historic Florida Keys Foundation’s cemetery tour ((305) 292-6718). You’ll find the plot dedicated to the sailors killed in the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor. And more than a few Key Wester personalities shining through on their tombstone epithets. There’s wisecracking B.P. Roberts’s “I Told You I Was Sick.” The once-prominent Otto family rests in a brick plot surrounded by a cast-iron fence. And even the family’s beloved pets rest with them, including their deer Elfina and three Yorkshire terriers. The Key West Cemetery has tombstones and memorials in just about every style. Eras overlap, with a grave from the 19th century up against one from the 1990s. Markers are made out of wood and metal and brick. You could call it chaos. But it’s the real Key West, in death as in life: polyglot, idiosyncratic, cheekby- jowl. And never boring. 7 Because drinks here are just way better than anywhere else. Yes our mojitos are amazing—try one at Sloppy Joe’s (201 Duval St.) or El Meson de Pepe (410 Wall St.)— and our Sunday mimosas start your day off right—sip yours at Sarabeth’s (530 Simonton St.) or Café Solé (1029 Southard St.). But we’ve also got a burgeoning culture of craft cocktail mixologists inventing new drinks every day (and night). And no wonder. We are a city where local entrepreneurs treated Prohibition as a business opportunity, and where today a local bar’s Breakfast Club (serving alcoholic breakfasts starting at 7 a.m.) is a proud and public institution. Sometimes you want to disappear into a dive, it’s true, but at others, you need to class it up a bit. Your classier options used to be limited to hotel bars—Ramblers at the Casa Marina Hotel and Resort (1500 Reynolds St.) is one of the toniest old-school bars in town, and a few years ago the Orchid Key Inn (1004 Duval St.) opened the Orchid Bar, a sweet little hideaway. Now new hangouts like 2¢ gastropub (416 Appelrouth Lane), the Other Side (429 Caroline St.) in the old Porter mansion are bringing a mainland mentality to island drinks in the best way. See our Bar Guide on page 76 for more. 8 Because our home-grown indie theater rocks. In any other community of 25,000 you’d be hard-pressed to find a quality independent movie theater that serves up foreign films, provocative documentaries and offbeat indies. But the Tropic Cinema (416 Eaton St.; tropiccinema.com) does just that. Expect films from modern-day legends Pedro Almadovar, Wes Anderson, David Lynch and more, classics from Orson Wells and Alfred Hitchcock and scads of quirky limited release films not showing in other theaters. The Tropic also hosts special events like a Sound of Music Singalong and good old-fashioned Saturday morning movies for kids. Bonus: It being Key West, the snack bar includes pairings of craft beers and wines with your popcorn. 9 Because great writers flock to our shores every winter. Elizabeth Bishop, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams . . . The list of legendary writers who lived and wrote on our little island paradise goes on and on. You can stock your shelves with everything from faded picture books to first editions for a few bucks at the monthly Friends of the Library Book Sale in the Palm Garden, (700 Fleming St.). Famous writers read from their works at the free Friends of the Library Lecture Series on Monday evenings, held at The Studios of Key West (533 Eaton St.). The season opener here is the Key West Literary Seminar (kwls.org) in January, a tropical showcase for great writers—Marilynne Robinson, Pico Iyer, Barry Lopez and a dozen more—talking about and reading from great writing. Even though the event sells out early, there’s always a free Sunday afternoon session—and always the chance of spotting a Booker Prize-winner at the local breakfast joint. 10 Because our county jail is a zoo. Yep, there’s actually an animal farm at the jail. Started as a way to protect Muscovy ducks who were meeting untimely deaths as they wandered over from the golf course across the street, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Animal Farm on Stock Island is now a genuine refuge. Visit for free on the second and fourth Sunday of each month. The farm’s stock includes sloths, kinkajous, rescued horses and most recently a Key deer named Roosevelt. 11 Because you can have a fantasy Caribbean wedding here. Whether barefoot on the beach, elegant in a resort, breezy on a schooner or costumed in safari regalia at Papa and Pauline’s Hemingway House (907 Whitehead St.), your dream wedding is here. 12 Because we’ve got café con leche to start our days. Just ask for con leche when you step up to the counter of any one of the many small Cuban sandwich shops in town. Comes with plenty of sugar unless you are quick to say otherwise. But even if you don’t normally sugar your coffee, you must try this Cuban version of a latte. Strong Cuban espresso, steamed milk and a spoonful or more of sugar is the fuel that powers the island. Prefer your coffee short, dark and strong? Try a buche (a swallow, or what they call a café or cafécito in Miami—basically an espresso). Sharing with a group? Get a colada—a larger cup of espresso, meant for communal café intake. See page 66 for some of our favorite places to grab your con leche. 13 Because our seafood is awesome. Pink shrimp, stone crab, spiny lobster (AKA crawfish)—all are the fresh-off-the-boat kind here and so prized that our fishermen make their livings shipping portions of the catch off to Asia. We eat them so often that we eat them every way possible—straight off the grill, in a burrito, in mac and cheese or a Reuben. Local chefs are experts at preparing snapper, grouper and hogfish. Even the invasive lionfish is making it onto local menus. See our Restaurants Guide on page 66 for more. 14 Because we have our 14 own eponymous fruit. Pies made Key limes famous and we are not about to take a stance on the Graham cracker crust vs. baked crust, or the whipped cream vs. meringue disputes. But any Key Wester knows Key lime pie is yellow, not green. And that Key lime is also delicious in other uses, from drinks—there’s Key lime wine, even—to frozen treats. See our Restaurants Guide on page 66 for our favorite “sweet” spots. 15 Because there’s sunken treasure here! Mel Fisher found it back in 1985 when he discovered the mother lode from Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank off the Keys in 1622. And he and others are still searching for more. A former chicken farmer-turned-scuba shop owner, Fisher searched for the treasure ship for decades. After he found the booty, he persevered all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in battling the federal government for control of the treasure. You can see some of the swag at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum (200 Greene St.) or Mel Fisher’s Treasures, the store next door where you can buy your own gold or silver coin. 16 Because of our dog beach. And park. That’s right, you can find the dog beach at the end of Waddell Avenue next to Louie’s Backyard (700 Waddell Ave.) And the dog park just down the road at the corner of White Street and Atlantic Boulevard. That and our four-legged friends are welcome at a surprising number of restaurants, bars and stores. Locals take their dogs with them everywhere, including the office supply store and bank—First State Bank, among others, keeps a bowl of biscuits on the counter. 16 Because some extraordinary tropical wildlife lives here with us. The Key West Wildlife Center (1801 White St.) is a combination ER-nursing-home shelter for native wildlife that get into trouble, including birds, turtles and marine mammals. The staff and volunteers make rescues at all hours and do their best to return their patients to the wild. And our Turtle Hospital (2396 U.S. 1 in Marathon) cares for and rehabilitates endangered sea turtles that are sick or injured, with the aim of releasing them back into the wild. 17 Because of our dog beach. And park. That’s right, you can find the dog beach at the end of Waddell Avenue next to Louie’s Backyard (700 Waddell Ave.) And the dog park just down the road at the corner of White Street and Atlantic Boulevard. That and our four-legged friends are welcome at a surprising number of restaurants, bars and stores. Locals take their dogs with them everywhere, including the office supply store and bank—First State Bank, among others, keeps a bowl of biscuits on the counter. 18 Because you can sail back in time without leaving local waters. The tall ships still sail our waters, and you can see them in the harbor all season, not just for special events. Approaching the island under sail reminds you of what it was like for those who came here first, and how far out there—despite that highway and that airport—we really are. Every winter, our local sailors test their skills against each other and against the shipwreck salvors who first built Key West in a series of sails to Sand Key called the Wreckers Cup series. See our On the Water Guide on page 92 for more. 19 Because we are closer to Havana than we are to Miami. Cuban Americans began crossing the Straits of Florida to Key West in the late 19th century—when Miami was still a swampy outpost. Today Cuban food, music and heritage infuse Conch culture. Newcomers can learn more at any coffee shop, comparsa performance or at the San Carlos Institute (516 Duval St.). Cuban cigar workers built the first San Carlos and poet-patriot Jose Martí spoke from the balcony to encourage the uprising against Spanish colonial powers. After a hurricane, the Cuban government built the current, ornate version in the 1920s to serve as a consulate. In county property records, the owner is still listed as “Republic of Cuba.” But you won’t run into Fidel or his followers here: It’s now a museum and performing arts center, as well as a concrete reminder of the unbreakable ties between the two islands. 20 Because Key West arts are thriving—watch out, Brooklyn! Venerable cultural institutions like the Waterfront Playhouse (310 Wall St.) and the Key West Art & Historical Society (281 Front St.) flourish alongside new players like The Studios of Key West (600 White St.) and the Tropic Cinema (416 Eaton St.). Galleries open every season showing the work of artists who have been here for decades as well as those newly arrived. Art openings are like public parties where we greet our friends, purchase beautiful works to put on our walls and are often surprised at new ideas popping up all over Old Town. See page 85 for our Galleries Guide. 21 Because you can rent any kind of vehicle here. Well, almost any vehicle, save for those ridiculous Segways, which thankfully are banned in Key West. But if your yen is for an electric car made over to look like a miniature Hummer, a tandem bicycle or a motorcycle, yeah we’ve got those, and you can hit the streets on them here. 22 Because we’re also landlubbers! Despite being surrounded by water, we love it on the land and find a surprising number of entertainments on a three-by-five-mile island. We run and roller- skate along Smathers Beach, we roll bocce balls at Indigenous Park, we play tennis at Bayview and Higgs Beach parks, we swim at the Martin Luther King, Jr., pool, we whack softballs at Bayview and Wickers Field, and sometimes we play a beer-fueled grownup version of kickball called sloshball that is far more fun than it should be. 23 Because we can chow down after hours, 24/7. Knowing you can get a slice or a cheesesteak at Mr. Z’s ( 501 Southard St.) till 4 a.m. or a cheese toast at Sandy’s (1026 White St.) 24/7 makes us feel so much more at peace with the world—and it will for you, too! From cops on the beat to the hard core on their way home, everyone knows you can always find sustenance—and greasy hangover cures—when you need it. 24 Because we’re all about our public art. Each winter Sculpture Key West (sculpturekeywest.org) places pieces in parks around the island, but even outside of that people cannot resist adorning their fences, telephone poles and curbs with creative embellishments. Giant dancers from works by Renoir and Matisse greet you outside the Custom House. We engrave poetry in the sidewalks. We even have our own Banksy-style street artist whose “Blobbys” pop up on concrete power poles and street markers, even as their creator’s identity is the island’s best-kept secret. 25 Because of our parties! On any given weekend, people on the street are collectively celebrating something that would be considered bizarre on the mainland . . . And nobody here raises an eyebrow. To wit: Conch Republic Independence Days (which features a battle between the local fleet and the Coast Guard, conducted with stale Cuban bread and water guns), St. Patrick’s Day (which began with a bar “stroll” that was an honest-to-God race and become an island-wide celebration), the Parrotheads (who fly in by the hundreds to worship at the altar of Jimmy Buffett), Civil War re-enactors (yep, the Civil War even made an appearance down here). Even when the island is overrun during the 10-day fall costume extravaganza Fantasy Fest— now in its fourth decade—we keep coming up with new ways to get dressed up, from the Zombie Bike Ride to Tutu-Tuesday. For more information on all of the bizarre festivities see our events listings on page 99. 26 Because our lighthouses are more than beacons. Wander the keeper’s quarters of the Key West Lighthouse (938 Whitehead St.) to see how the guardians of safe shipping lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then hike to the top for one of the island’s best aerial views. Further out, the reef lights of the Keys stand as metal skeletons. Today they serve as markers for fishing and diving more than safeguarding navigation. But they are haunting reminders of how important—and how dangerous—the shipping lanes along the reef once were. Lighthouse completists must travel to Dry Tortugas National Park (roughly 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico) where a small light stands atop the brick walls of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. Three miles away the 150- foot Loggerhead Light still shows the way where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Florida Straits. 27 Because for locals, life is a baseball diamond. Key West baseball is a religion, with a long and storied history. Before major leaguer Boog Powell joined the Baltimore Orioles, he won championships at Key West High School. With more than a century of Cuban immigration to our small island, baseball has always been the prestige sport for Key West kids. In fact, KW holds 11 state titles—the most in Florida. Nationally, can any town of 25,000 compare with our production of major leaguers, from Boog Powell and Randy Sterling to Bronson Arroyo and Khalil Greene? Every spring, you can watch these pre-major leaguers starting out on the local diamonds when they’re only a few feet high. The high school games are the closest thing Key West has to a professional sports franchise, and we follow them with the same devotion, on the radio or in person. 28 Because we are the only city in the U. S. that is also a republic. The Conch Republic declared independence in 1982 when border patrol roadblocks between Key Largo and Florida City snarled traffic and scared tourists. Naturally we immediately surrendered and requested federal aid. But we also celebrate the anniversary each year and fly the Conch Republic flag proudly, alongside the Stars & Stripes and the rainbow flag. And for a mere $100, you can get your very own Conch Republic Passport! See page 99 for our events listings and more on the Conch Republic Independence Days. 29 Because you can bet on a racing turtle. What better way to take part in Key West’s long and sometimes questionable gambling tradition, from high stakes poker games to bolito tickets, based on the Cuban lottery? Head over to Turtle Kraals (231 Margaret St.) to place a bet on your favorite turtle. Just don’t hold your breath for the photo finish. 30 Because our weather is better than yours!
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