Keys to Paradise

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Duval Street in Key West, Florida
Colin Windell
Colin Windell

Key West, Florida is always warm with that balmy humidity that induces long, slow lunches that lead into long, slow dinners, washed down with chilled beer or wine and followed at evening’s end with a sample (or several) from The Rum Bar.

Key West is the southern-most human habitation of the USA. Tourists pose alongside the marker that proclaims this, pointing to Havana, Cuba being just 140 km away. In fact, further south of this point is a US military base not available to tourists, but that’s just a technicality.

The Keys are actually islands – hundreds of them – dotted in the ocean south of the Florida mainland with large numbers uninhabited and protected as marine reserves. Getting to Key West involves island hopping – driving across some 42 bridges, one of which is 11 km long.

Hand rolled cigars for sale.
Hand rolled cigars for sale.

Duval Street is Key West’s main party street, hosting the most bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and cigar sellers runs east-west for 1,6 km across the island. People party here like there is no tomorrow. Maybe there isn’t. In line with the hurricane path off the Atlantic Ocean, the island has had some run ins with the big winds with notable floods over the years. The highest point is a mere six metres above sea level!

Cayo Hueso is the original Spanish name for the island and it literally means ‘Bone Island’. Legend has it that the area was littered with the bones from a Native American battlefield or burial ground.

Ernest Hemingway allegedly wrote A Farewell to Arms living above the showroom of a Key West Ford dealership while awaiting delivery of a Ford Model A roadster bought by his wife’s uncle in 1928. His home is open to tourists and features descendants of his seven-toed cat.

Tennessee Williams started hanging out in Key West in 1941 and is said to have written the first draft of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1947, while staying at La Concha Hotel. He bought a house in 1949 and listed Key West as his primary residence until his death in 1983. Various Presidents over the years have also used the Winter White House.

Typical home in Key West
Typical home in Key West

Key West has some spectacular gracious old homes. Fortunately, there is no rush to pull a Sol Kerzner and create new brick and mortar monster-pieces out of character with the surroundings. The hot, humid summer months are probably the best time to visit as American ‘tourists’ tend to wait for December to escape the snowy climes further north – and it can get very crowded. It is also hugely popular as a ‘Spring Break’ venue in May.

Key West at sunset.
Key West at sunset.

Key West is for fun and sun. The shallow waters of the Atlantic Ocean mean small tidal changes and no waves – like a massive pool with the same ambient temperature as an average bath. Water sports abound include jet skis, sunset cruises in glass-bottomed boats to the reef, some 6 km offshore. Think daily sunset festivals at Mallory Square, the aquarium and regular visits from cruise ships.

Cuban cigars are illegal in the USA, but cigar shops dotted all along Duval Street offer ‘Cuban style’ cigars, hand-rolled in front of you. And the tobacco washes ashore from Cuba!

Sloppy Joes Bar, Hogs Breath Saloon, The Porch (18 craft beers on tap), Capt Tony’s Saloon and Rick’s Bar are just a few of many nightspots – others cater for more varied tastes with drag shows or ‘clothing optional’ as one proclaims.

No wonder Hemingway was inspired.