It's so exotic many people forget it's part of the United States.
A small, sunlit, sea-surrounded island at the southernmost tip of the United States, Key West – or the Conch Republic, as the locals call it – is a tantalizing, tempting study in contradictions: a laid-back tropical paradise that bustles with urban chic, an outsider's refuge that welcomes the unorthodox and a military outpost proud of its pirate heritage.
We were seeking a quiet, luxurious hotel when we chose the Southernmost on the Beach, belonging to the Southernmost Hotel Collection family of hotels -- just steps away from the southernmost point in the USA. Spacious, comfortable rooms with ocean views and breezes, and an exceptionally helpful and welcoming staff combined to put us at ease from the instant of our arrival – until our departure four days later.
The well-appointed rooms feature dark wood. "We want you to think that you're walking into a luxurious yacht," said general manager Matthew Babich of the three Southernmost Hotel properties in Key West. "As far as our service, we are competing against the big upscale hotel chains, so we need to be memorable."
After our first memorable and restful night's sleep at Southernmost, we found there is no lack of things to do, places to see or people to meet in Key West.
We started with the hotel's Southernmost Beach Café for a relaxing breakfast complete with sea breezes, fresh fruit and Florida's famous freshly squeezed orange juice. With no clear itinerary in mind, we hopped aboard the Old Town Trolley, an excellent method to establish one's bearings of the island, while also getting one of the best guided tours in town.
Where else would one learn that the biggest house in Key West was built with only one bedroom because the madam didn't like company, or that a devastating fire led to the regulation that all houses have steel roofs?
Same for the architectural feature known as "eyebrows" – long, pitched roofs extending over an upstairs porch with small windows, which allowed them to be open during a hurricane.
And one might only have mused over the charming gingerbread detail on many of the houses and their fences without realizing that they contain a code! If one were looking for an inn, speakeasy, or perhaps something more elusive, one need only look at these decorative trims.
Although the Trolley Schedule isn't always convenient, it is worthwhile. We never did find the time to take a full tour on it all the way around the island, but wondered what other fascinating tidbits we missed by only getting as far as Mallory Square.
After a disappointing lunch at Key West's oldest Cuban restaurant, Pepe's, we visited Mel Fisher's not-to-be-missed Maritime Museum, -- near the drop off and loading point of many cruise lines – the museum features the salvaged treasures of the wrecked Spanish galleons Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita.
It seems incredible that more than 30 years after Fisher's salvage efforts began scattered treasures are still being found buried at sea. An emerald and gold ring was discovered only a few short days before our visit. How does one find such a tiny thing in the vast sandy ocean bottom anyway? Yet the treasure is only part of the story – the good part. The rest is the story of a hard life at sea, of the looting and plunder of innocent peoples, and finally of shipwreck.
Opting for the chic quiet of our end of Key West, we enjoyed a drink at Louie's Backyard, which is reputedly the premiere dining experience in Key West. Cocktails on the oceanfront deck, coupled by the expansive sea view were magnificent, but we opt for an adventure – a taste of Key West -- before the tourists found it.
This required taxing over to the adjoining Key for dinner at the Hogfish Bar & Grille. True, it is a different kind of experience – one must drive through a trailer park to get there. But the Hogfish provides a glimpse of the old Key West, situated on the area's last remaining working waterfront. The restaurant's thatched roof and pool tables create an amiable ambiance and the sampling of unique and tasty local specialties is real taste of the non-tourist side of the Florida Keys.
After a repeat of another great repose and breakfast at the Southernmost Beach Cafe, we decided how to best fill the hours before our sunset sail at six. We succumb to the lure of the fabled Hemingway "polydactyl" (having extra toes) cats, and a tour of the "Little White House".
Again, the Old Town Trolley delivers us to the busy end of town, delivering us a block from the Hemingway Home Museum's door.
The home is a picture of tropical paradise perfection, now a privately owned museum to detail Hemingway's life style in the Key.
Here, we quickly learn that at any given time as many as forty cats are in residence there, most of them polydactyls.
It is indeed true that Ernest Hemingway lived in this house for several years, writing some of his most memorable novels in a study on the grounds. But nowadays the resident cats are clearly one of the main attractions. They can be found curled up on benches and under shady trees, strolling along the garden paths or strutting past visitors.
Hemingway, a superstitious man, had the cats in-residence due to their alleged reputation of bringing good luck to their owners.
Tempting though the thought may be, we abandon the notion of spending the remainder of the day cuddling cats and wind our way through the midday tropical swelter – on foot – along what must be Key West's loveliest palm-fringed street to the Harry S Truman Little White House, where a private guided tour awaits. The only thing more welcoming than the sudden immersion into an air-conditioned environment is Executive Director Robert J. Wolz.
The enthusiasm Director Wolz evinces for both the Little White House and its principle occupant, Harry S Truman is contagious. Although he claims not to be a Truman scholar, Director Wolz is nevertheless an extraordinary advocate of Truman's legacy.
His tour of the Little White House shows us a unique time in presidential history – a wartime era when the need for privacy, security, and a comfortable level of intimacy were essential for negotiating the challenge of literally saving the world. His tour also includes the private lives of presidents, and the house itself has been meticulously restored to its genteel 1940s appearance in honor of Truman. It is no wonder that presidents as recent as Bill Clinton have chosen to stay at the Little White House, and it continues to be an active presidential site.
After our in-depth tour full of discovery at the Little White House, it is well past lunch hour and we opt for lunch at the legendary Casa Marina.
Built by Florida's infamous railroad tycoon Henry Flagler, the main building of the hotel has all the solid airiness of a Victorian railroad station. Our expectations are instantly elevated as we are escorted to our shaded table at the Sun-Sun Beach Bar and Grill where our toned and tanned waiter provides temptations aplenty – in the form of an elegant luncheon menu.
It is wonderful to be off our weary feet. Chef's special gazpacho? Please! Conch Fritters and salads, too. We are lucky ladies as we enjoy a tableside visit by Richard Cavaco, the executive chef at Casa Marina. We praise his culinary creations and the Gazpacho recipe is soon in our hands, along with his permission to publish it here. What more could we possibly want? Key Lime Pie and Frozen Hot Chocolate deliciously answer that question.
Sweet Melon Gazpacho by Richard Cavaco, the executive chef at Casa Marina. 1 whole cantaloupe small dice 1 half watermelon small dice 1 gallon orange juice 1 half watermelon pureed 1 bunch cilantro 5 cucumbers peeled seeded and small dice 5 jalepenos small dice 4 red bell pepper small dice Place orange juice and half a watermelon into container and puree. Add all other ingredients.
Having lingered over a late lunch, we quickly ready ourselves for the sunset sail aboard Key West's flagship, Western Union.
Another taxi ride to Mallory Square (we have become used to the fare system – a flat rate based on areas for multiple passengers), and we arrive with just enough time on our hands to poke into a few of the boutiques that border the waterfront and to admire the Western Union, which just completed a $1.3 million renovations program less than a year ago, from shore.
Built in Key West and launched in 1939, this 130 ft. sailing vessel serviced the communications lines that ran from Key West to various points throughout the region well into the 1970s. She is a solid, sturdy ship, perfectly suited to ferrying the aficionados and tourists alike. Ahoy, Captain – we're ready for sunset!
Being welcomed aboard ship by the traditional strains of a hammer dulcimer is a new experience for each of us, but we are hardly neophytes when it comes to locating the complimentary wine and munchies.
Calm seas and a gentle breeze combine to make our cruise as relaxing an event as could possibly be. We cleverly station ourselves near the ship's wheel and enjoy the view as we sail along the edges of Mallory Square where musicians, acrobats and enthusiastic crowds gather daily at sunset. We are grateful to be able to enjoy the spectacle from such a rarified distance. Heave-ho mateys – we've had enough of Key West's crowds for today.
The nautical life is governed by traditions, and Western Union's sunset sail is no exception. At the moment the sun dips below the horizon the cannon is fired and – in a spectacle unique to this ship – a dove is released into the twilight. There was never a more fitting ending to a perfect day.
How to find our way back to our hotel after the cruise? The surprise answer peddles up in the guise of Claus, "the Peddle Pimp," and his pedicab. Our late evening ride through some of Key West's quieter streets with Claus as our guide was a perfect end to the day. By the way, Claus advises our readers to always agree on a price before getting into a pedicab, unless it's his, of course!
Glowing with the satisfaction of a day well spent, we are especially grateful for the nearness of the Café on the Beach – only a few soft, sandy steps from our doors. Dinner is delicious, and Margaritas in Margaritaville are sublime.
The next morning -- can it really be our final day? -- a special surprise for which swimsuits and long-sleeved t-shirts are de rigeur awaits. But first, one final beachside breakfast before strolling across Duvall Street to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory.
It may strike the uninitiated as odd that in a tropical island locale at the southernmost tip of the US – one that houses such unique wonders as shipwreck treasure and six-toed cats – the #1 tourist attraction is a butterfly garden. Yet the Key West Butterfly Conservatory has been just that for the last eight years.
Entering through the gift shop, one steps into a sun-filled tropical paradise utterly a-swirl with hundreds of butterflies of anywhere from 50 – 60 different species. Although a charming sense of caprice pervades in the conservatory, nothing is left to chance. Butterflies are imported in chrysalis form and develop behind a glass window for all to see. They are not allowed to reproduce in the conservatory, and to that end plants are specially chosen that are not specific to the mating habits of any of the featured species. We are not the least bit surprised to learn that the otherworldly atmosphere has been known to bring tears to the eyes of the strongest of men.
Our final trip is to The Dry Tortugas, via the good folks at Key West Seaplane Adventures who advise us to take the afternoon flight, which arrives just as the final tourist boat, dubbed the "booze cruise", is departing. Grab your swim fins and snorkels, a private beach will soon be yours!
The seaplane flights over a 70-mile stretch of ocean - infamous for pirates and shipwrecks. The dashing Capt. Evan guides us through the area's notorious history as effortlessly as he pilots his De Havilland DHC-3 Otter to the island. Soon the six-sided Fort Jefferson is in view and we gently alight on the edge of a white sand beach. Next, we take our pilot up on his offer to give us a guided tour of the Fort.
Now a U.S. national park, Fort Jefferson – the island's principal edifice – has a unique place in American history, principally for having guarded the Lincoln conspirators and the infamous Dr. Mudd in the months following the presidential assassination. The Fort was originally built in 1830 as part of a national defense system designed to protect the lifeline of commerce to and from the Mississippi River from pirates. Later, it served as a northern bastion during the Civil War, effectively preventing the South from sailing much-needed supplies up the Mississippi River.
"Always leave wanting more," definitely is our modus operandi here. Having avoided the crush of the touristy side of Key West, we return to our respective homes wanting another restful, fun and elegant vacation in Key West.