Key West's reputation has certainly undergone a makeover over the years. When Ernest Hemingway called the island home from 1931-1961, Key West was a quiet, laid back port town with its own character and a unique charisma. To visit Key West now is to find an island that has been almost completely commercialized with the remaining small pockets of the old Key West disappearing fast.
Not that this is a terrible thing. The confluence of people into Key West makes for a more diverse atmosphere and a fun-loving destination 365 days a year. Key West still embodies a true "laid back" spirit and a quirky self-deprecating humor; even the cemetery is a source of offbeat amusement.
Key West has been an inspiration to countless authors and artists. Among those who have called the island home, besides Hemingway, are John James Audubon, Tennessee Williams, and John Hershey.
While over 1.2 million people visit Key West annually, only thirty thousand people call it home on a permanent basis. But those thirty thousand are fiercely loyal. Nicknamed "The Conch Republic," Key West even has its own flag! Most permanent residents have called Key West home for generations, and many would confess that they have never left the island. Can you blame them?
Festivals and celebrations dot the calendar year-round in Key West. From Hemingway Day in July to Fantasy Fest in October, your visit has a good chance of coinciding with a local event.
Of course, over time, the secret of Key West has gotten out. The number of hotel rooms has tripled, and the delicate balance of natural beauty has been threatened. The only living coral reef in North America is found here, and steps have been taken to ensure its continued survival.
What will never change is the beautiful weather and breathtaking scenery you will find in Key West. The island is only seven and a half square miles, easily covered on foot or bicycle. With all its commercialization, Key West has managed to maintain a unique flavor all its own.
Docking & Local Transportation
Cruise ships dock at the Port of Key West. Two berths will accommodate cruise ships of any size.
Key West is only four miles long and two miles wide, so transportation is not much of a problem. Bicycles are a great way to see the island and get in some exercise. The island terrain is flat, so even if you haven't been on a bike since childhood, you should have no problem. After all, as the old adage goes, "it's like riding a bike." Check out The Bike Shop (305/294-1073) or The Bicycle Center (305/294-4556). A basic cruising bike can be rented for $8 per day, while a mountain bike goes for about $15 a day. Mopeds are another inexpensive way to get around the island. Moped Hospital (305/296-3344 will give you a two-hour rental for $12, or $25 for the day.
A visit to The Florida Keys and Key West Visitors Bureau (800/FLA-KEYS, www.fla-keys.com) will give you a good head start on all the activities and events to see and do while in Key West.
A great way to see everything that Key West has to offer is by taking an organized tour. Either the Conch Tour Train (800/868-7482, www.conchtourtrain.com) or the Old Town Trolley (305/296-6688, www.trolleytours.com) will take you around the island and fill you in on Key West's history. The running commentary of the tour guides is always good for a laugh. You can pick up the Conch Tour at either Mallory Square or the Welcome Center. The Trolley is also based in Mallory Square.
If you can't get enough of the sea, a glass-bottomed boat tour on the Fireball (800/994-8898) provides coral-reef tours. But to really get your money's worth, the sunset cruise is the tour to take. Included on the tour are snacks and drinks, and a glass of champagne to toast the setting sun.
The Key West Aquarium, at 1 Whitehead St. (305/296-2051, www.keywestaquarium.com) is not the fanciest aquarium ever built, but nevertheless, there are lots of sights to see here. There are guided tours that leave four times a day. On these tours you will be able to catch feeding time for sharks, barracudas, stingrays, and more.
The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum at 907 Whitehead St. (305/294-1575, www.hemingwayhome.com) is a must-see for fans of the great author. Hemingway wrote some of his best work here, including A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Located at 200 Greene St. in Key West is the fascinating Mel Fisher Museum. Here you can learn all about the famous Fisher family and the legendary treasure dives they have embarked on for many years. Contact the Mel Fisher Museum (305/294-2633, www.melfisher.org) for more information.
The Key West Cemetery offers a unique, irreverent change of pace. The tombs are stacked high in the air, because deep digging was impossible in the rough soil. The epitaphs on the headstones are not of the "Devoted Husband" variety, so be sure to read them all.
While the sun setting is certainly not unique to Key West, the way each sunset is celebrated certainly is. Behind Mallory Square, you will see people starting to collect as sunset approaches. The docks are a mélange of artists, vendors, and acrobats. The crowds can get big, so try and secure a spot early.If you would prefer to stay above the fray, try and get a spot at Hilton's Sunset Deck (305/294-4000), the Ocean Key House (305/296-7701), or the Pier House's Havana Docks (305/296-4600).
Fort Zachary Beach combines the history of a Civil War fort with the beautiful ocean vista of the Keys. You can visit the Civil War museum here or just soak up some rays. There is also a nice picnic area available. You can also check out Smathers Beach. It's located west of the airport, off South Roosevelt Blvd. Or, sunbathe at Higgs Beach, which is along Atlantic Blvd.
Clinton Street Market will beckon you, as it's close to port. T-shirt shops are ubiquitous here, so if you're looking for a quick souvenir, this is your one stop shop. Cigars are making a comeback, and if you're looking for a fine smoke, visit the Key West Cigar Factory located at 306 Front St (305/294-3470, www.keywestcigarfactory.com). You'll find a large selection of domestic and foreign smokes. Some beautiful Caribbean art can be had here, if you know where to look. Cuba, Cuba! (305/295-9442) features a collection of artwork by Cuban artists. The Haitian Art Co. (305/296-8932) has a bunch of rooms filled with original artwork by Haitian artists. Some of the pieces are truly outstanding, and they are priced accordingly.
Fast Buck Freddie's (305/294-2007) and its satellite store, Half Buck Freddie's at 726 Caroline St. (305/294-2007), feature everything you want to find at a department store. Fast Buck has the in-season looks you want, while Half Buck will get you the same merchandise at reduced prices, provided you're looking for bargains that come here once they wear out their welcome at the main store.
Dining and Nightlife
La Trattoria, at 524 Duval St. (305/296-1075), offers a subdued Italian setting to remove you from the mayhem of Duval St. Give the tiramisu a taste, it's divine. The restaurant even has its own cocktail lounge, Virgilio's. Bahama Mama's Kitchen, at the corner of Whitehead & Petronia Streets (305/294-3355) serves authentic Bahamian cuisine. Anything soaked in coconut oil on the menu is recommended. If you need a late night snack, check in to PT's Late Night at 920 Caroline St. (305/296-4245). Try the fajitas or take on the big salad dishes.
The Hard Rock Café, at 313 Duval St. (305/293-0230) is a great place for a delicious lunch of hamburgers, fries, and more. Close by, at 211 Duval, is Irish Kevin's Pub (305/292-1262), a great place to wet your whistle amidst a festive local crowd. At many of the local restaurants, and served specifically outside the Key West Aquarium, you can try the delicious Conch Fritter's, served nice and hot, and a true local favorite of the residents of the Conch Republic.
For evening entertainment, just walk along Duval Street, and you will be entertained. You'll find plenty of live music, more bars than a jail cell, and a jovial crowd. Among the favorites are Durty Harry's at 208 Duval St. (305/296-4890), Sloppy Joe's at 201 Duval St. (305/294-5717 ext. 10, www.sloppyjoes.com), and Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville Café at 500 Duval St. (305/292-1435).