A tropical breeze, warm sun on your face, and a rum drink in your hand. Welcome to Key West, Fla.
Key West is an island at the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys, 90 miles from Cuba. More than 1,700 islands make up the Keys but only 43 islands are linked by bridges, including the spectacular Seven Mile Bridge.
We arrived on the island for a destination wedding held at the breathtaking Southernmost on the Beach Resort. It was a perfect location for a wedding celebration complete with sundrenched beaches, romantic sunsets and exotic nights on the town.
History and architecture
Since its founding in 1822, Key West has enjoyed a rich history with a colorful cast of characters, including poets, pirates, and presidents. The island has inspired celebrated writers such as Ernest Hemingway and popular musicians such as Jimmy Buffet. Even President Harry Truman vacationed at the “Little White House” in Key West.
Today, it is a tropical paradise for tourists and a haven for those craving a free-spirited vacation adventure. Visitors are immediately greeted with Southern hospitality and soon enjoy the laid-back feel of the island coined the “Conch Republic.”
Influenced by the Caribbean and Deep South, the architecture showcases Victorian- and Conch-style buildings with meandering porches, plantation shutters and lush landscapes. Many of the historic buildings have been preserved and transformed into hotels, restaurants and boutique shops.
Adding to the colorful Key West scene is the abundance of roosters and chickens that strut aimlessly throughout the streets. They were brought to the island by early pioneers about 200 years ago. With an estimated 1,500 or more, the locals call them gypsy chickens and cherish their wild and wandering spirits.
Duval Street is the main artery that runs through the island from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Only a mile long, visitors can easily stroll from coast to coast and enjoy a menagerie of boutiques, bars, and bistros along the way. At any time of the day or night, it is the best way to experience the fun and festivities that make Key West a vast playground for adults.
The excitement of Duval Street culminates at Mallory Square for the world famous Sunset Celebrations. It is a gathering place for street performers, artists and musicians who entertain the crowds as the sun sets along the Gulf of Mexico.
What to do in Key West
Our pre-wedding festivities began with a Catamaran Sunset Cruise leaving from the Historic Seaport. It was a special evening with friends and family watching a dazzling sunset out at sea.
The Historic Seaport, which celebrates Key West’s seafaring heritage, features more than 100 land-and sea-based waterfront businesses. There are a variety of water activities to enjoy such as snorkeling, fishing charters and treasure dives. The seaport area also features many popular restaurants, hotels, shops, and crafts booths.
A special treat was a fascinating tour of the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. The acclaimed writer lived and wrote in Key West for about 10 years, beginning in 1931.
Our quirky guide entertained us with stories about Hemingway and his Spanish Colonial house built in 1851. It is filled with European furnishings, interesting memorabilia and unusual six-toed cats — more than 40 — who roam about the grounds. They are considered descendants of a white six-toed cat given to Hemingway as a gift. The highlight of the tour was seeing his writing studio left intact with his original typewriter.
There are many other things to do in Key West such as taking a city tour on the Old Town Trolley or visiting the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. With the island’s small size, you are able to walk most anywhere. No need for a rental car, but you can rent bicycles, scooters or electric cars for fun.
Dining and drinking
The variety of food choices and dining experiences mirror the eclectic Key West vibe. For seafood, we had a satisfy ing lunch at Alonzo’s Oyster Bar located on the dock overlooking the marina at the Historic Seaport. Another time, we enjoyed traditional Cuban sandwiches at Ana’s Cuban Café. Step up to the window to order, then sit outside on the patio benches and watch the world go by. A favorite breakfast place is Camille’s, which has been a local staple for 20 years.
We also enjoyed two wonderful French-themed restaurants.
Croissants de France serves breakfast, lunch or dinner in a secluded garden in the heart of Duval Street. For a more casual atmosphere, there is the Banana Café — a charming bistro serving classic French dishes. It is located on the more trendy part of Upper Duval Street surrounded by art galleries and upscale shops.
Then there is the romantic-themed restaurant, Better than Sex, which serves only desserts, wine, beer and coffee specialties. Think wine served in a chocolate rimmed glass.
The dimly lit dining room laced in deep red and gold colors only holds 15 tables so reservations are strongly encouraged. With such decadent menu items as Peanut Butter Perversion, Kinky Key West Cream Pie and Fork-You Fondue, it is an experience that cannot be missed.
Key West is a great place to go bar hopping, and it seems to be happy hour at any time of the day. One of our favorites was The Rum Bar on Duval Street with its quaint atmosphere and traditional tropical rum drinks.
After the wedding, we partied at a Key West landmark, Captain Tony’s Saloon.
Originally built in 1851, it is named after the legendary fishing boat captain and former Key West mayor who purchased the bar in 1958. It claims to be the oldest bar on the island and was a favorite spot for such celebrities as Hemingway, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. It is also where Jimmy Buffet got his start.
With its long wooden bar, bras hanging from the ceiling, and famous Pirate Punches, it is an authentic dive bar that defines the funkiest of Key West.
For anyone needing to de-stress, kick back and let loose, remember the words of Jimmy Buffet and head to Key West — “It’s those changes in latitude, changes in attitude.”