Key West by Bike

| Wednesday, 05 Mar. 2003

Key West has always been one of my favorite cruise ports, offering everything from historical landmarks to graveyard ramblings, from tropical beaches to dazzling sunsets. And I have found that the best way to see this small place only four miles by two miles is on a bicycle.

You can breeze your way through the herds of tourists and explore Key West's historic, cultural, and botanical treasures at your own pace. Bike rentals are as cheap as $9.50 a day, and come with baskets for your souvenir shopping along the way, as well as locks and even helmets if you like.

All of Key West with its three historic districts is worth exploring, and free detailed maps are available almost everywhere in town.

Starting where Greene, Whitehead and Front streets intersect to form the triangle called Clinton Square, you can pedal your way to such interesting places as the 1891 Custom House/Key West Museum of Art & History; the Key West Aquarium, the world's first tropical open-air aquarium; Key West Winery, where you can purchase their signature flavor Key Lime Wine; and Mel Fisher's Maritime Museum, where you can see shipwreck archaeology and purchase fascinating coins and salvaged treasures.

The West Indian-flavored tropical architecture that distinguishes Key West can be found along Caroline Street, which is the earliest and probably the most posh area. And if you love sweets (as I do), don't dare miss the famous Key Lime Shoppe and a slice of their famous frozen key lime pie dipped in chocolate. To pause for something cold to drink, the legendary Sloppy Joe's Bar, where Ernest Hemingway was said to bend his elbow frequently, is a few pedals away.

Duval Street is called the longest "trip" in the world, because it stretches from the Gulf of Mexico on one side of Key West to the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The one-mile strip, lined with everything from tacky T-shirt shops to bars and chic galleries, is the Parrothead (i.e., Jimmy Buffet fan) Capital of the world. And the constant parade of motorists and pedestrians, day and night, down this world-famous funky and ever-changing street, is best maneuvered on a bicycle.

To experience Key West's quirky character better than any history lesson, pedal your way to the "dead" center of "Old Town," where the original cemetery was moved to higher ground after the 1847 hurricane disinterred bodies from an earlier site. Park and lock your bike to take a leisurely stroll through the fascinating whitewashed tombs and statues. The graveyard, still active, has more than 75,000 "residents." The most visited is the large white crypt of B. Pearl Roberts, a local hypochondriac, with the sardonic inscription, "I Told You I Was Sick."

Truly, biking Key West is much more exciting than a slow ride on the Conch train or a crowded walk down Duval Street. You can route your own sightseeing, like breezing to the haunts of writers/residents Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Robert Frost, Hemingway, and Margaretville's own Jimmy Buffet, and actors Kelly McGillis, Jaws' Roy Scheider; and choose from the many quaint cafes and restaurants if hunger strikes.

Pick-up locations for rental bikes are within easy walking distance of the cruise ships.

Most bikes are the "old-fashioned" kind with pedal brakes and no gears - because gears, I was told, just aren't necessary on the flat landscape of Key West.

Tropical Bicycle Rentals (305-294-8136) has rates of $9.50 per 24-hours or $45.00 a week. Their bikes are "Island Cruisers," with wide handlebars and comfortable seats. They also have "trail behinds" for children. Scooters are also available. Locks are included.

Island Bicycles (305-292-9707) has baskets, locks and helmets for $10 per day or $50 a week.

I have walked Key West, done the Conch train, taken tours, but never enjoyed myself more or made the most of my time in port--than when I was pedaling around this quaint little isle.

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