Maybe one day I'll tire of Key West...but I doubt it. Whether the Island Runaways duo has driven in via the fabulously scenic (albeit slow) Overseas Highway or jetted to Key West International, on every arrival my pulse picks up. Because I know this one truth: Good Times await.
Everybody who’s ventured to Key West more than once seems to have their own joints to recommend, their own nostalgic recollections, their own future plans. Once you’ve gotten down your tried-and-true routine, you might not want to navigate over to that different bar or take a chance on that new bed & breakfast. But despite the fact that part of the pleasure of returning for a Key West getaway is reacquainting yourself with beloved locales, it’s always a good idea to keep your options open. A new performer comes to town; a new cocktail is being shaken. Might just blow your flip flops off. In that spirit, here’s a mix of long-time favs and recent discoveries (recent for us, at least):
(Andrews Inn & Garden Cottages. Photo (c) Laura Albritton)
Historic inns in Key West are as numerous as the feisty roosters that roam the streets. For locations you can’t beat, stay at Old Town Manor (off Duval with a lovely garden) or the Weatherstation Inn (within the quiet yet centrally located Truman Annex). I can’t count how many establishments I’ve stayed in over the years, most of them good, but our recent trip took us to a marvelous compound: the Andrews Inn and Garden Cottages. Tucked away down a gravel alley where you’d least suspect it is an enchanting tropical property with a cocktail pool and palm trees. (To the uninitiated a cocktail pool is a small plunge pool, not a pool filled with cocktails. Alas.) Decorated with island charm, Andrews Garden is a delightful haven. The complimentary beer-and-wine happy hour were a nice touch, as was the cooked breakfast, but the coolest quality? Some rooms have a view over the back of the Hemingway House. To be able to gaze out over Papa’s swimming pool, hours after the last tourists have left, is an unusual Key West experience.
(The Casa of Ernest Hemingway. Photo (c) Laura Albritton.)
Needless to say, the classic attractions are worth revisiting: the Hemingway House (now mercifully air conditioned), the Audubon House (with its reconstructed outdoor cookhouse), the Oldest House (now with docents, to make it more interesting), and then there’s soaking up the sunset at Mallory Square. Whether you’re visiting nurse sharks at the Aquarium, monarchs at the Butterfly Garden, or taking in an exhibition at the Old Customs House, you really can’t go wrong. Key West is a good place to embrace -- rather than run from -- being a tourist. Walk down Fleming or Caroline or any of the other streets lined with Conch cottages and wonderful old Victorians and “Eyebrow” houses, and appreciate the mash-up of New England-Bahamian-Southern-vernacular architecture. Do it all, even if you have to spread it out over different trips. From the Trolley tour and Conch train to sunset and snorkeling catamaran jaunts, it’s…well…swell, for lack of a better word.
(Unpretentious Half Shell Raw Bar. Photo (c) Laura Albritton.)
Sure, Key West has great bars, but there are also restaurants galore, some of them low key, others more upscale. I was excited to see that one of my favorite breakfast-lunch spots, La Grignote, has a new outpost on Fleming Street. (The other’s on Duval.) Owned by a French couple, these 2 casual places make AMAZINGLY delectable pastries – like their almond croissant, which is a transcendental experience. Seriously. But if you’re trying to “eat healthy,” they serve delicious salads and sandwiches, too. However, when we want to peel-and-eat Key West Gold (shrimp, that is), we head to a place that’s been around for decades: Half Shell Raw Bar. The atmosphere is totally unpretentious; the seafood’s always fresh. We just order shrimp and more shrimp and some sides. Then there’s tapas at Santiago’s Bodega, steaks at Pepe’s, nouveau southern cuisine at Firefly – I could list 10 other restaurants worthy of your time, and if you love Key West, you could as well. Leave a comment if there’s one we should try.
(The historic Green Parrot bar. Photo (c) Laura Albritton.)
If you enjoy a little cabaret-style singing, try La Te Da. This is place for a grown-up experience, whether you buy tickets for the show upstairs or simply enjoy the performance at the piano bar. It’s not picnic tables and tiki huts, it’s old school music, classic cocktails, and professional, crackerjack service. (At the bar, you can also eat, and I recommend this as a dinner spot.) To hydrate and revive yourself, drink coconut water from an honest-to-God coconut at the place on the corner of Duval and Angela. The sign says COCONUTS. Can’t miss it. Others will envy your genuine coconut and ask where they might find one. Now, for the best people watching in Key West? That’s found on the balcony on the second floor of the Bull & Whistle bars. Get your drink and sit outside and watch the humanity spill down Duval Street, from comfy your perch above. Can’t be beat. For more music, we always check out what’s on at the Green Parrot. Despite its t-shirt shop and fame, the Green Parrot remains the quintessential Key West drinking establishment. Long may she reign.
(Hydration done right on Duval. Photo (c) Laura Albritton.)
All that drinking and eating may leave your liver crying for mercy. In which case, you might want to do a drop-in Bikram or Hot Vinyasa class at Next Hot Yoga, on Whitehead Street steps from the Hemingway House. The instructors are exceptional. World class. Warm vibes. If you like yoga, go. You’ll thank me.
(Unmissable Art Point shop. Photo (c) Laura Albritton.)
Everyone, it seems, is shopping local, and we’re all for that. Key West lotions and Kino sandals are fantastic. But there’s something to be said for the foreign and the exotic, and as a port city, Key West has a history of embracing people – and goods – from abroad. This last trip we discovered a truly fantastic find, Art Point, on Duval Street, of all places. (824 Duval, to be exact.) Here, owner Hakan Metin offers a treasure trove of beautiful, hand-crafted Turkish goods, from evil eye pendants to gorgeous pottery. Slippers, rugs, and chic pillowcases. It’s an interior decorator’s dream, but at down-to-earth prices. We shopped once, then had to return for seconds. It’s that good. Check ‘em out, and while you’re buying local, through a little international in the mix. Speaking of local, one of our favorite places is the iconic Island Books. Run by book lover extraordinaire Suzanne Orchard, this bookstore sells rare books, used books, and new books. Want a mystery? Huge selection. Want biography or history of Florida Keys? She stocks ‘em. There is a reason that part-time residents order their books from Suzanne, even when they’re not on the island: because for her, book selling is a labor of love. Island Books hosts authors and signings and is basically a wonderful haven for folks who like to read.
(The fabulous Suzanne of Island Books. Photo (c) Laura Albritton.)
The beach at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Enough said.
DO and DON’T
When you visit Key West, do enjoy yourself. Don’t worry. Also, don’t rent a scooter and drive drunk. You may run head-on into a concrete light pole. (We’ve seen it happen.) Walk in the steps of old Ernest and dance the rhumba at Sloppy Joe’s like poet Elizabeth Bishop once did. Amble down to Higg’s Beach and absorb the oceanic vista. Write a poem yourself. Attend the Key West Literary Seminar in January (but buy your tickets way ahead). Treat yourself. Laugh at a stranger’s joke. Whatever you do, don’t sweat the small stuff, and you will almost assuredly have a mighty fine good ol’ time.
(The view from Higgs Beach. Photo (c) Laura Albritton.)
Laura Albritton is the author of four books on South Florida history and travel, including Marathon: the Middle Keys, Key West’s Duval Street, and the recently published Hidden History of the Florida Keys, written in collaboration with historian Jerry Wilkinson. She has written for the Miami Herald, Harvard Review, Sculpture magazine, and the Florida Keys Weekly.