You've seen it before: one of your favorite authentic attractions in the islands becomes so popular, that next thing you know, the thing itself has been so tourist-ified, so commercialized, that all the charm has been squeezed right out of it. To be honest, that is what I'd feared had happened in Key West to Mallory Square. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first, what exactly is Mallory Square? For those of you who haven't yet visited Key West: Mallory Square is a public square on the waterfront, just a few blocks away from the famous -- and notorious -- Duval Street.
(In Key West Mallory Square is a main event. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
In the late 1960s, people began to gather at Mallory Square to watch the vivid pink and orange hues of the spectacular Key West sunset. Over time, a party-like, carnival atmosphere developed, with street performers and vendors catering to a captive audience. Word spread, and the "sunset celebration" at Mallory Square soon was a must-see Key West attraction. (In fact, this location emerged as a prime sunset viewing spot long ago. Famous American author Mark Twain viewed the setting sun from here, many decades ago.)
(Folks gather to watch the sky. Photo by Laura Albritton.)
My first experience with the Mallory Square took place in the 1980's when I was just fourteen. The wacky, off-beat fire eaters and people peddling hand-made trinkets immediately fascinated me. Since then, I've returned many times to view the sunset here (including on my honeymoon with Island Runaways' photographer, Zickie)! The cast of characters always changes; one time you may witness dancing little dogs in tutus, another time, a juggler juggling fiery torches. Or maybe you'd like your fortune told by a local psychic?
(One of the psychics in Mallory Square. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
When cruise ships began docking here, locals protested that the huge bulk of the ship would ruin the view. The solution? A ship must depart from its dockage two hours before sunset, and can return after dark. This allows visitors and residents alike to enjoy an unfettered vista of the changing sky. It's not every city in the world that would value nature's beauty so very much, but then Key West has always marched to its own funky beat.
(You don't find "dull" in Mallory Square. Photo by Island Runaways/Z.A.)
Here, vendors do not simply sell a pineapple drink, they concoct a colorful extravaganza that's a little show in its own right. Paintings, photographs, and hand-made jewelry represent the colors and attitude of this unique Florida island. Yet even with all the hubbub, it's still all about the colors of twilight.
(Waiting for sunset in Key West Florida. Photo by Laura Albritton.)
Sometimes, especially in winter high season, the square grows incredibly packed with people, but this July visit, I'm happy to report that it felt just right: popular, but not cramped. Despite its fame, Mallory Square remains a truly "Key West" phenomenon, which grew organically and which no amount of publicity or hype can ruin. While I love seeing the island sky light up with the setting sun's farewell performance, one of the most memorable aspects of any Mallory Square evening? Just soaking in the diversity and wonder of our fellow human beings.
Have you experienced Mallory Square? If so, hope you leave a comment below! To see a 18 second video of a Mallory Square juggler, click here to go to our You Tube channel.