The most famous of Florida’s keys may be official territory of the Sunshine State, but it’s a small strip of real estate so renowned for its unparalleled island culture, it almost seems appropriate to brandish a passport upon entry. At approximately 13 square kilometers, the southernmost point on the US map may still retain its reputation as an inspiring writer’s hideaway for the likes of Ernest Hemingway or the perfect escape from worldly concerns, as it was for president Harry S. Truman.
But it has also become known as an all-inclusive paradise, whether you’re a single Parrot Head or a family of four on winter break.
Part of Key West’s appeal lies in the fact that it defies a singular definition. Aside from its balmy climate and ocean breezes, charm factors include historic architecture, Bahamian and Cuban culture (evidenced in the cigar shops, food and music), and a laid-back attitude that makes it a magnet for free spirits and artists of every stripe. It’s not unusual to see clubs and restaurants filled with every conceivable demographic, from drifters and drag queens to tourists visiting from the Midwest or Great Britain.
Though Miami is still thought of as ground zero for Florida’s Jewish community, Key West had a number of Jewish settlers when it was incorporated in 1832.Congregation Bnai Zion was founded in 1887, and the economy of pushcart peddlers from Europe thrived during the turn of the 20th century.
Key West also possesses an intriguing mix of subtropical allure and US history. An afternoon can include touring president Truman’s Little White House, snorkeling the US’s only living coral barrier reef and ending the day with a frothy daiquiri at the famous Sloppy Joe’s bar. Or you can charter a sailboat tour, angle for bullfish beyond the reef, browse the Duval Street galleries, kayak through the shallow-watered “back country” and tour historic fort ruins.
Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost and Jimmy Buffett are just a few of the famous who discovered solace and inspiration in the island city. So too did Bahamian wreckers, commercial fishermen, spongers and Cuban cigar-makers. Its Bahamian and Cuban heritage is seen throughout the island in restaurants and cigar shops, museums and accommodations.
A portion of Key West’s famed (and mostly honkytonk) Duval Street is known for its eclectic galleries, boutiques, fine dining and wine bars. Art and artisan emporiums include SoDu Gallery, displaying the vibrant painted tableware of Janis Childs and fine jewelry of Lainie Davia; the Frangipani Gallery, featuring the colorful paintings of founder Fran Decker; Cocco and Salem Imagine Art and its works by more than a dozen artists, including the renowned Jim Salem and his nature paintings; and Gingerbread Square Gallery, showcasing the lush rainforest canvases of Sal Salinero.
Key West and its intrigue: • The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum – www.hemingwayhome.com. The iconic author’s home and second-story writing studio offers a glimpse into American literary history. It was here that Hemingway wrote some of his most notable works, including For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and To Have and Have Not, which was set in Key West.
• The Southernmost Point Whitehead and South Streets, www.southernmostpointusa. A massive concrete buoy marks the southernmost spot in the continental US – only 90 miles from Cuba.
It’s one of the most sought-after photo-ops on the Key, so be prepared to stand in line; there’s often a wait to snap a photo at this magnet of a landmark.
• Sunsets at Mallory Square – www.sunsetcelebration.org. In Key West, sunsets aren’t merely viewed, they’re celebrated carnival-style at Mallory Square, a sprawling concrete pier in the center of town that overlooks Key West Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s here you’ll mingle with townies, on-leave cruise ship passengers, and street performers hawking their tricks and talents.
You’ll have a tough time deciding whether to check out the joke-telling unicyclist, the Calypso singer, the knife-throwing magician or the real star of the show, the giant red ball on the horizon – also known as the sun.
• Key West Aquarium – www.keywestaquarium.com. You’ll get an up-close look at dozens of marine species inhabiting the waters of the Florida Keys, including exhibits of alligators, jellyfish, tropical fish and a living mangrove ecosystem. There are also guided tours, a touch tank, and daily turtle and shark feedings.
• Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory – www.keywestbutterfly.com. One of only three major butterfly facilities in Florida, the conservatory features a 465-square-meter glass-domed tropical butterfly habitat.
Visitors can observe hundreds of butterflies from 50 to 60 species and numerous species of colorful exotic birds in the habitat, as well as two flamingos that recently became conservatory residents.
• Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden – www.kwbgs.org. This shrouded 6-hectare (15-acre) garden is the only “frost-free” botanical garden in the continental US, featuring more than 6,000 plants and trees. The gardens also provide a habitat for 35 butterfly species and more than 270 migratory bird species. It’s a splendor that’s meant to be explored on the walking trails, boardwalk trails, 0.4-hectare (1-acre) butterfly habitat, freshwater lake and wetland habitat.
• Fort Zachary Taylor – www.floridastateparks.org/ forttaylor. Both a state historic site and recreational park, “Fort Taylor” is best-known for its centerpiece of a Civil War-era fort, built to defend the country’s southeastern coastline. Every October, the edifice morphs into a Civil War-themed haunted fort. But most people flock to this scenic park for its beaches and picnic areas, as well as a host of recreational activities that include fishing, cycling, hiking, swimming and snorkeling.
Dining • Two Friends Restaurant – www.twofriendskeywest.com. Established in 1967, this open-air restaurant is one of the last remaining dining establishments in Old Town Key West. The menu does what a Key West menu should: Let you know in no uncertain terms you’re in seafood paradise, with selections like crab cakes benedict, fried yellowtail sandwich, seafood fettuccine and conch fritters.
• Pisces – www.pisceskeywest.com. You won’t find a more European or romantic setting for a candlelit dinner. This Wine Spectator award-winning French-flared restaurant is the former Cafe Des Artistes. The new incarnation features an impressive selection of fresh seafood, and the artistic presentation still remains. Witness the paper-thin beef carpaccio, elegantly arranged like a mandala on the plate and dotted with colored sauces and reductions to resemble an artist’s palette. Also try the sweet and tangy lobster mango tango and the raspberry-glazed roast duckling.
• Blue Heaven 7 – www.blueheavenkw.com. To-diefor key lime pie can be found at just about any eatery in Key West that offers forks, but Blue Heaven’s version is as legendary as it is towering. Opened in 1992 by an artist and a writer, the menu has expanded from a few lunch selections to full dinner and catering menus. But tourists still flock to the Bohemian venue, often just to dig into a sky-high slice of pie while sitting at a backyard table under the ancient almond tree.
• Louie’s Backyard – www.louiesbackyard.com. One of Key West’s best-known gourmet restaurants is a restored Victorian house with dining both indoors and on tiered decks leading down to the Afterdeck Bar on the water. It’s at the upscale bar you may find yourself mingling with some of the Key West literary legends or vacationing celebrities.
Best time of year to visit: During the off-season of September and October, when you will be regaled with impressive discounts (sometimes as high as 50 percent) from the business- starved hotels and restaurants.
SOURCES ; For information on Key West and the Florida Keys: www.fla-keys.com. For information on Jewish Key West: www.jewishkeywest.com/History.html; about Congregation Bnai Zion: www.bnaizionkw.org. Stacey Morris is a freelance writer from Lake George, New York; www.staceymorris.co