My husband Noel and I have been to Key West four times, the last time was the first week in April of this year. This visit was a kind of last minute decision. We both had had enough gloomy Illinois winter weather and Noel really needed a do-nothing vacation after a hectic year and a half in his new job. For us Key West has just the right blend of tacky bars, decent hotels, some really good dining, and great weather. It’s a perfect four-day getaway.
In the past we have flown into Miami, rented a car and driven down on US Route One which is considered one of the great drives in the US. It is a great drive and I highly recommend doing it for a first time visit to Key West. It takes about 4 hours provided there are no accidents that might temporarily close the road.
But if you can manage it, I suggest driving from Miami to Key West and flying home directly from there. The rental car company will charge more, but the drive back can be tedious. There are a number of airlines that fly into Key West including Southwest Airlines. We love Southwest Airlines and would fly around the world on it if that were possible. Having done the drive, we opted to fly both ways changing planes in Tampa.
We made our hotel reservation in February, not the best time to reserve a Florida hotel for five days at the height of spring break in April, but we were able to find a decent room at the Pier House, One Duval Street. We paid a premium for the location because the resort is right in the center of all the action on Duval Street and on the water. But we didn’t need to rent a car at all. If we wanted to go somewhere too far to walk, cabs are plentiful and cheap. Plus, the property is large enough that there really isn’t any disturbing noise from the partiers on Duval Street.
On our previous Key West sojourns we’ve stayed in the full range of accommodations – a budget chain outside of town, a high-end bed-and-breakfast, and another resort hotel, The Reach Resort. The only positive about the budget chain motel was the price. A car was an absolute necessity. We are not B & B fans, but the ones in Key West are so gorgeous that we were sucked into staying in one on our second visit. Never again, bad bed, mediocre breakfast, no convenient parking and just a little too intimate for our tastes. For our third visit we were able to land a very good room at The Reach Resort for an amazingly low price because the resort was going through a soft opening after an extensive renovation, but it was still a hike to the Duval Street area where we like to barhop.
Barhopping on Duval
There are plenty of bars on Duval Street, a lot catering to budget-minded, under 30 travelers. Most of the bars offer mildly alcoholic slurpies that purport to be frozen margaritas, piña coladas, daiquiris, etc. All are pre-made with lots of shaved ice and flavorings. They will generally be served in plastic cups so you can walk around with them. Nothing wrong with that, but Noel and I like real cocktails, made to order, served ice cold and up.
One of our favorite places used to be Mangoes, 700 Duval Street [now closed as of 1/25/18]. It was a physically beautiful bar and restaurant, especially the outdoor garden with its signature mango trees. There is almost nothing we enjoy more than sitting outdoors at a bar in tropical weather, noshing on small plates, and people watching while chatting it up with the bartender. It was probably the best place in town to people watch. The daiquiris were pretty good and it’s hard to screw up a Bombay Sapphire gimlet, Noel’s usual. But the food really suffered since our last visit. We shared a plate of conch spring rolls and found the conch really tough to chew and the shrimp bisque a little over salted.
The Grand Café, 314 Duval Street, on the other hand, has both great drinks and really good food, but sadly no outdoor bar. Their conch fritters and mojitos are great.
We kept passing by the Rum Bar, 1117 Duval Street, and didn’t stop in until the day before we left probably because it’s part of the Speakeasy Inn and looks a lot like a bed-and-breakfast, giving it no credibility to us. Boy, were we wrong . . . It may be the best bar in town. No surprise, the Rum Bar specializes in rum and rum drinks and has over 200 different kinds. We didn’t get to meet the bartender Bahama Bob Leonard who apparently is a bit of a legend in town, but he sure trained the young man well who was tending bar in his absence. Our daiquiris were fabulous. The Rum Bar will be at the top of our revisit list the next time we need a Key West fix.
Public Art in a Park
By and large, I don’t find the galleries in Key West particularly interesting, too many tropical birds and flowers, largely uninteresting tourist art. However, I do recommend the Audubon House Gallery which shows antique original lithographs and engravings by John James Audubon as well as modern reproductions.
For great public art I strongly suggest exploring the Memorial Founders Park located between Whitehead and Wall streets close to Mallory Square and the Audubon House. The park contains 36 remarkable busts of important people in the history of the town and a large sculpture of the Wreckers, early Key West settlers who made their living scavenging ships that had gone aground on the reefs surrounding the Keys. The pieces are all by Miami artist James Mastin. Each bust is mounted on a pedestal with a bronze plaque that relates the life and contribution made to Key West by the individual.
I found it quite fascinating to read about these remarkable founding men and women. For example, Sandy Cornish, c1793-c1869, was born a slave in Maryland. Somehow he managed to migrate to Florida and with the help of his wife Lillah bought his freedom in 1839, but in the late 1840’s a fire destroyed his free papers. He was subsequently captured by six men who intended to sell him in the slave market in New Orleans. He escaped and to avoid recapture he publicly cut the muscles of one his ankle joints, plunged a knife into a hip joint and then cut off the fingers of his left hand, thus making himself unfit to work and worthless as a slave. He and Lillah subsequently moved to Key West, bought a farm and for 20 years supplied the inhabitants with fresh fruits and vegetables. He died free and one of the wealthiest and most respected men on the island.
James Mastin’s work is quite wonderful. His busts are real, living personalities. The tension between the inanimate bronze and the living personality it forms is palpable. Some of the busts make you laugh, at others you shake your head in wonder. In addition to the pieces at the Memorial Founders Park, in 2007 Mastin produced the memorial honoring the Haitian volunteers under the command of Casimir Pulaski who fought the British at the Siege of Savannah during our Revolutionary War. He also completed two sculptures of Toussaint Louverture, one in Port-au-Prince and a bust in France.
Miscellany and Water Activities
There really are a fair number of interesting things to do in Key West besides barhop. On past trips we visited the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, the Harry S. Truman Little White House, and the Ernest Hemingway Home. All three are fun and informative. For water related activities I can recommend a high-speed catamaran tour of the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson, an island about 70 miles west of Key West, and deep sea fishing on a charter boat. We’re not fishermen but we went out for a half day and Noel managed to catch and release a tarpon (with some help). The best part about that excursion to me was watching the birds follow the boat when the captain threw out chum to attract fish. It was like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
This time we opted to take a reef tour in a glass bottom boat since neither of us scuba dive. We were very disappointed with what little we were able to see. My understanding is that the water on the Atlantic side was very choppy that day so the company chose to take us to the reefs on the Gulf side. Apparently the reefs on Gulf side are not nearly as interesting as the taller ones on the Atlantic side. I would strongly advise checking with the company about which waters the boat will be touring before you book. The next time we return to Key West we’re going to try an eco-tour of the mangroves in a kayak. We’ve been assured no experience is necessary. We’ll see.
The Pier House where we were staying is a full-service resort with a restaurant and a bar, neither of which are particularly memorable. However, the resort does offer a high-end spa with a full assortment of messages, facials, wraps, waxing, manicures, pedicures, etc. We decided on 50 minute hot stone messages. They were wonderful. I really wish we had done the 80 minute ones.
Watching the sunset from Mallory Square with all of the attendant hullabaloo is an absolute must at least once during a stay in Key West. I just loved watching the acrobats, the hokey dog act, and the gutsy comedian with the shell game.
It’s also a good place to pick up cheap souvenirs from the artisans that ply their wares on the square. I found a nice Christmas ornament with a hand-painted sunset on it.
From there we made our way to dinner at Louie’s Backyard, one of the two best restaurants in town.
The Two (or Three) Best Restaurants in Town
The Pier House has a good concierge desk. Louie’s Backyard, 700 Waddell Street, is extremely popular and hard to book with one day’s notice at the height of the season, but the concierge was able to do it for us. Louie’s is one of the loveliest restaurants I’ve been in. It’s on the water with both indoor and outdoor dining areas. The outdoor area is multi-leveled and lit up after dark with lots of white Christmas lights in addition to the oil lamps on each table. The scene was an absolute wonderland of miniature white lights, tropical breezes and the sweet fragrance of flowers. Our table was on the terrace right outside the indoor dining room and overlooking the whole magical scene. It would be a stunning place to watch the sun set. Our server was pleasant and very professional. I don’t mind being waited on by foreign students learning English at summer resorts up North, but nothing can replace an experienced, well-trained server who knows the menu and is sensitive to her/his clients.
I started with a grilled Romaine lettuce salad with crispy pork belly and parmesan-pepper dressing and had a grilled NY steak with a potato puree and a warm wild mushroom salad for my entrée. Nothing that unusual, but we had been eating a lot of fish and I wanted some meat. Everything was prepared to perfection. Noel ordered sweetbreads for his entrée and he reported that they were outstanding. We shared something for dessert and just relaxed taking in the magic of the evening while lingering over our wine and after dinner drinks.
On our last night we went back to a favorite restaurant we discovered on our third visit – Pisces, 1007 Simonton Street, the other best restaurant in town. As the name implies, seafood is the specialty here, particularly locally sourced seafood. The concierge had told us that this was the season for hogfish, a local favorite, and we should order it if it were on the menu. Hogfish is a vertical flat-bodied fish with a pig-like snout that is abundant in the Keys. It’s generally caught only by spear-fishing and is difficult to de-bone so I’m told. Pisces had it on its menu as hogfish Dieppoise (i.e. in a white wine and cream sauce) accompanied by jumbo lump blue crab and seared diver-caught scallops. The dish was divine with each sea creature cooked to its delicate peak and the sauce perfectly balanced in consistency and flavor.
In addition to serving fantastic food, Pisces is decorated with original signed lithographs by Andy Warhol. I would probably go there even if the food were mediocre just to look at the Warhols. We were seated at a corner deuce table with Franz Kafka on one wall and Mick Jagger on the other. The vibes were amazing. The service, of course, was impeccable.
For us no visit to Key West is complete without a visit to B.O.’s Fish Wagon, 801 Caroline Street. B.O.’s makes great conch fritters and a great cracked conch sandwich in addition to fried soft shell crab in season, fried shrimp, and fried grouper. All can be grilled if you don’t want fried (but honestly, why not?!). Buddy Owen started his business 25 years ago with a fish wagon on Duval Street and the business has evolved into a rollicking open-air seafood shack. The website says there is live music on Friday nights. We haven’t yet stayed over a week-end in Key West, so I can’t vouch for the quality of the music, but along with kayaking among the mangroves, the Friday night jam at B.O.’s is definitely on our list for our next visit to the island in a year or two.