The drive south to Key West from Miami is one of the most famous in the world. Along with Highway 1 on the California coast, Highway 1 in Florida is a road trip worth doing at least once in a lifetime. It is mostly a two-lane road that stretches more than 125 miles over dozens of islands strung together by bridges. The Atlantic is on the west, the Gulf of Mexico is on the east, and there are some spectacular vistas of turquoise seas and emerald vegetation all along the way. Taking photos of these vistas is challenging, since on the highest points of the bridges, there isn’t any place to stop, so as hard as I tried, many photos have sky, a sliver of sea, and a barrier dominating the foreground. It was still breathtaking, and I so love the magical shades of turquoise, blue and sea green. In places where the limestone and coral was very near the surface, the colors were an incredible shade of pale blue-green, almost like an opal in the sunlight.
The accepted form of marking your way is by mile marker, with Key West at mile marker zero. Restaurants and attractions advertise their position by that notation. “Best Seafood in the Keys, at MM 73.5” This drive between the ocean and the gulf was a part of this trip I had especially anticipated, and it didn’t disappoint me.
We took our time, and arrived in Key West just in time to check in to our historic guest house at 3 PM. Angelina’s Guest House was charming, and considering the prices for lodging in Key West, was very reasonable at around $111. per night. We did have to share a bathroom with other guests, and our room was tiny, but I loved it. The owners were helpful with suggestions about where to go for happy hour, and where to eat, and everything was handled well. The location was nearly perfect as well, being only 2 blocks from the famous Duval Street, on the edge of the historic area called Bahama Village. While some folks warned about the neighborhood, we found it charming.
By the time we checked in, we were ready for supper and walked down Whitehead street to the recommended happy hour at Kelly’s Caribbean Bar, Grill, and Brewery. The Key Lime Marguerita was a special at $4.50 each and one was more than enough for me. Kelly’s is a brewery as well, and had a great wheat beer included in the happy hour menu. The chicken wings were truly fabulous, so large and meaty that Mo said, “Didn’t we order wings? These look like drumsticks.” They were perfectly done, crispy on the outside and the jerked sauce served on the side was the perfect touch of Caribbean flavor so famous in Key West. It was our first taste of what was to be a vacation of eating great food. While we sat there watching everyone laughing and having a good time, we discovered that the couple next to us was staying at our same guest house. It wasn’t the first time we would have a delightful conversation with someone we didn’t know. People are in Key West to have fun, and everyone, both locals and visitors, seems especially conversational. We decided the wings were a perfect dinner, and with a happy glow, (the one marguerita was as much fun as a glass of champagne for me) walked down to Mallory Square for the famous sunset.
I have read about this sunset celebration often, and while it is a very touristy thing to do, it is also a lot of fun. The square is filled with happy people, and the locals performing throughout are a kick. We wandered about a bit, watching the acrobats, and strange musicians playing combo instruments before we happened on Dominique and his Circus House Cats. Needless to say, being a cat person, I was entranced by his ability to encourage his amazing cats to leap and play and do whatever he asked them to do. Dominique himself was a small Cajun man, with a crazy accent, a mop of wild graying hair, and some very strange mannerisms. He was hysterical. We watched him until the sun set, and even though it was less than spectacular, the sails against the sky made for some great photos.
We walked home along Duval Street, marveling at the galleries, and the bars, and most of all the people. I had expected this, bars and shops full of kitschy souvenirs, but I hadn’t expected Key West to be so entrancing, so pretty. We finally arrived home to our little room and a great night’s sleep listening to the winds in the palm fronds just outside our open window. Another surprise, there were no bugs! Our window didn’t even have a screen. Who knows if that would be different in another season, but for us it was perfect. Not a fly, not a mosquito, nothing.
Thursday morning dawned warm and gorgeous, and we took advantage of the relatively quiet streets to walk the rest of Duval and shop. Key West people are fascinating, and so willing to tell their stories. Stopping at the GreenWorld Gallery, we found an interesting man, Stephen, “Koz” Kozlowski, with an amazing story and the willingness to share it. Of course, I bought a tee shirt. Koz exemplified the sensibility I found throughout Key West, artisitic, creative people, who are willing to live outside the box.
We continued our walk to the Southernmost Point and on the way stopped at a little French bistro called the “Banana Cafe” where I had the most amazing Key Lime crepes and a real cappuccino. Once we arrived at the “Southernmost Point” with it’s bright colored marker, we laughed at the long lines of people waiting for their chance at a photo op. It was more fun watching all the people than taking the actual photo, so we didn’t bother to stand in line.
Walking back west toward our guest house on Whitehead street, we came upon the Lighthouse and Museum, just across the street from the Hemingway House. We climbed to the top of the lighthouse for the great 360 degree view of Key West and a chance to work out our thighs. The museum is small but done extremely well, and we especially enjoyed listening to the recorded voices telling the stories of the women who were the light keepers for so many years. I hadn’t realized that Key West had such a long, illustrious history, and was significant in the Civil War. Most of Key West residents were southerners, but the city itself was held by the Union. It made for some interesting stories.
After enjoying the lighthouse, we paid another $12.00 fee to enter the famous Hemingway House. I realize that these attractions are considered touristy, but they are touristy for a reason. Both were great. We learned some details of Hemingway’s life in Key West and in Cuba and some stories about his wives. Pauline lived with him in the Key West house for 8 years and her mark is everywhere. She took out all the ceiling fans and installed some gorgeous European chandeliers. The museum guide says they all curse Pauline in the hot summers. The famous Hemingway 6 toed cats were everywhere, of course. What I loved most about this house were the lime painted shutters against the white walls. The color isn’t really lime green, but more of a key lime yellow green that catches light in a way that enhances the lush tropical greenery from the gardens surrounding the house.
Back home, we napped in the afternoon breezes and then headed back to Kelly’s for another amazing marguerita and more interesting conversations. On this evening, we chose to have dinner. The freshly caught Mahi Mahi was encrusted with macadamia nuts, the pineapple rice was fragrant, and the coconut shrimp appetizer was perfect. I could get used to eating in Key West very easily if I didn’t have to think about money. Eating there isn’t an inexpensive thing, with almost all entrees at most of the restaurants around $23 to $30 at a minimum. But oh, such fresh, succulent seafood! Yum!
After dinner we walked through the the very upscale and spotless Truman Annex to Zachary Taylor State Park to enjoy another Key West sunset in a bit more natural environment. The fort was closed, but the park was still filled with people along the beach waiting for the sun to descend. Again, the skies were a bit cloudy and the colors subtle rather than brilliant, but it was still lovely. As the night darkened, we again walked Duval Street, enjoying the people watching and window shopping. I am not sure how long it would take to tire of the street scene, but we certainly weren’t in Key West long enough to do so. I would have wished for some more time to walk more of the side streets, to find hidden galleries and guest houses, and to just marvel at the tiny “conch cottages” that are covered with flowers and painted in pastel colors. In the part of town where we stayed, many of these cottages are more than 100 years old, and most of them are cared for lovingly by theirs owners. We saw evidence of repair and remodeling going on throughout the area. I think these tiny cottages no doubt cost a small fortune.