The Charm and Color of America’s Last Resort
Dangling at the end of a 113-mile, 42-bridge ocean-skimming highway that tethers 51 of the 822 Florida keys to the mainland, Key West is famously billed as the southernmost point of the continental United States, and enjoys its reputation as an eccentric, wacky, and a large gay community, all living in restored, barefoot and carefree bohemian island town. Its Bahamian-influenced pastel Victorian homes or a tropical melting pot of Caribbean, Latin quaint, white-framed “Conch” cottages. Many American, and U.S. culture, populated by locals eschew cars in favor of bicycles or foot power, (known as “Conches”), writers, artists, retirees, as the island is flat coral-rock and small, easy to navigate by either means. Almost daily (at least in high season), the island’s population is swelled by cruise ship passengers, who descend in the thousands in search of the requisite drink at the legendary Sloppy Joe’s on mile-long Duval Street, which starts at the Atlantic Ocean and ends at the Gulf of Mexico.
Those who escape Duval Street’s cavalcade of tourist tchotchke shops can find a more historical Key West at Hemingway House, where during a quiet moment you can still sense the aura of the Nobel Prize-winning author, who came to Key West in the 1930s, succumbed to its charm, and spent the next decade writing, drinking, and fishing prolifically. Papa helped put the island on the map as a quintessential party town where the margarita is the national drink and the attitude is anything goes. Soak up the atmosphere at the outdoor picnic tables at Schooner Wharf during the sunset cocktail hour, when patrons, local and tourist alike, contemplate the gorgeous sky, a unique Key West finger painting the color of coral. Those wanting a bit of pagan hoopla with their sunset can head for Mallory Square pier, where the daily sunset-watching ritual is augmented by a cast of jugglers, fire-eaters, and buskers.
For an oasis of civility at the end of a loopy day, book a room at the Gardens Hotel, named for the passion of former owner Peggy Mills, who from 1930 until her death in 1979 chose the living garden as an art form, and as her own private paradise and life’s work. If not for the meandering footpaths of centuries-old bricks from Cuba and Central America (once used as ballast for sea-going galleons), one could get lost in the otherworldly beauty of the bougainvillea, orchids, and ferns blooming beneath a verdant canopy of hardwoods and palms. The restored, two-story, West Indian plantation-style main building (the former home of the original owner, dating from 1870) as well as two similarly styled new buildings hide behind thick walls in the heart of Key West’s historic Old Town district. While salsa and reggae spill out of the bars that line Duval Street just a few steps beyond the front gates, the only music within is the rhythmic splashing of the fountains, the lazy whir of a ceiling fan, and birdsong. This is music to enjoy breakfast by, on the open-air brick porch where Key lime beignets almost steal the show.