Your Place in the Sun

Paradise is closer than you think. You'll forget all about winter in Key West.
Jennifer Mckenzie Frazier

President Harry S. Truman once said, "I have a notion to move the capital to Key West and just stay." After visiting the nation's southernmost town, who wouldn't want to pack it up and make this magical place home? Especially this time of year when the temperate 75-degree days are followed by 65-degree evenings.

U.S. 1 runs 150 miles south from Miami, ending at this enchanted island--a scant 2 miles long and 4 miles wide--surrounded by sparkling blue waters. Pastel-colored Victorian homes, which look more like overgrown dollhouses than residences, line streets barely wide enough for a single car. Violet orchids grow from the sturdy trunks of towering palm trees, while green ivy climbs on rickety picket fences. On one corner, free-range chickens and their chirpy tagalongs harmonize with a street musician playing Jimmy Buffett's peppy "Margaritaville" on a worn-out guitar.

In Key West, there's no such word as "weird." This seductive beach oasis has a mind of its own and accepts all wayfarers, no matter who you are, what you look like, or where you come from. Meander down raucous Duval Street wearing a magenta tutu, balancing a green parrot on your crown, and nary a soul will flinch.

My husband and I made a date to escape to this fanciful place. Here's a 12-hour diary of our adventures in Key West. See you there!

 

9 a.m.--Rumbling stomachs pull us from our comfortable slumber. We follow the clucking chickens to iconic Blue Heaven, where fresh shrimp or lobster Benedict tempts even the person who normally skips breakfast. We ask our Key West-native waitress what our first sight in town should be. "I'd stroll the cemetery. You can learn a lot about Key West just by reading tombstones." She tells us to look for headstones reading "I told you I was sick," "I'm just resting my eyes," and "Devoted Fan of Julio Iglesias." Of course we take her advice and meander through the quiet resting place.

10 a.m.--After an hour in Key West, we decide this quirky place feels like a nation of its own. Fittingly, it is. Key West belongs both to the Conch Republic and the U.S. This sovereign nation, named for the popular sea critter, was born on April 23, 1982, in response to a U.S. Border Patrol blockade of the Florida Keys. We head to the office of the secretary-general to obtain a souvenir passport.

11 a.m--Knowing that Key West is the past and present home to a slew of literary and artistic geniuses, we decide to follow a walking tour of their homes. The best-known resident was, of course, Ernest Hemingway. We step over dozens upon dozens of cats in his house and eye first editions of his books. Other literary figures of Key West include Shel Silverstein, Tennessee Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop.

 

 

Noon--We're ready to eat again. We walk from Hemingway's pad to Grand Café, a popular eatery on Duval Street. In honor of Key West, we share a chilled shrimp cocktail appetizer and then order heaping fresh fish sandwiches. We watch the colorful characters of this town stroll down the street while we refuel.

1 p.m.--Ready for our afternoon siesta, we drive to Smathers Beach, the best public beach in Key West. It sits on the Atlantic and runs along South Roosevelt Boulevard between the airport and Bertha Street. Equipped with oversize beach towels for lounging, we crack open books as we soak up some Florida rays.

2 p.m.--The allure of art calls, so we dust off our sandy toes to explore a few galleries in town. We start at KW Light Gallery where Sharon Wells shows her colorful paintings and photographs of Key West houses and flowers. Then we visit Barbara Grob, owner of The Wave Gallery. We fall in love with her sculptured metal geckos. Barbara tells us our next stop should be The Chicken Store. "Can we walk there?" we ask. She says, "I've lived here for eight years and have never driven a car."

3 p.m.--Chickens roam free all over the island. At The Chicken Store, we discover why. Owner Katha Sheehan tells us about the Rooster Rescue Team. The volunteer group takes in orphaned peeps, nurses sick and wounded ones, and relocates unwanted chickens. To support the cause, we buy yellow "Save the Chickens" T-shirts.

4 p.m.--Armed with Conch Republic passports and chicken T-shirts, we investigate the island's shopping. Our first stop is Bésame Mucho, where we marvel over the French soaps and interior decorating items in this boutique. We then see Fast Buck Freddie's standing out from the many souvenir shops on Duval. We drool over the bamboo furnishings and silk tropical shirts in this local department store.

5 p.m.--My husband declares, "Enough shopping," just in time to watch the sunset. The actual setting of the sun is only a portion of this daily ritual at Mallory Square. We also spy street artists, fire-eaters, break-dancers, and jumping cats.

6 p.m.--Giddy from the excitement of Mallory Square, we walk back to our hotel, The Marquesa, to unwind. The lights in the tall palm trees reflect against the crystal blue pool waters in the back of this 27-room hotel. We agree that this may be the prettiest place we've ever stayed.

7 p.m.--Not ready to leave the hotel yet, we visit the on-site restaurant, Café Marquesa. Our server starts us with glasses of wine and brings a heaping basket of bread and a plate of homemade hummus to the table. After one bite of our perfectly prepared tuna steaks, we know that we made the right decision in dining here.

8 p.m.--Full from the heavenly meal, we walk off dinner with a stroll on Duval Street (better known as Doing the Duval Crawl). This main street of Key West attracts every sort of character this town has to offer. We feel a bit like Ma and Pa Kettle in the big city for the first time as we absorb sights we've never experienced before. Then we remember that here nothing is weird, and we simply shrug it off.

9 p.m.--No trip to Key West would be complete without a taste of the dessert this area calls its own. We break all diet rules, stop at a walk-up cafe, and order slices of chocolate-dipped Key lime pie on a stick. We feel a bit naughty eating sweets at this hour but decide that in this town late-night splurges are a must. In fact, we think Key West would be disappointed if we didn't.

For More Information
Contact the Key West Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-527-8539, or visit www.fla-keys.com/keywest.

Outside of Key West

If you drive to Key West from Miami or decide to venture outside this quirky town, here are five highlights you won't want to miss.

1. National Key Deer Refuge.
You'll think they're newborns, but they're actually the diminutive species of deer known as Key deer. They feed at dawn and dusk in this area of largely undeveloped pinelands. Head north on Key Deer Boulevard in Big Pine at Mile Marker (MM) 30.5 for the best viewing. Visit http://nationalkeydeer.fws.gov.

2. Dry Tortugas National Park.
A two-and-half hour ride aboard a catamaran will take you 70 miles west to Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson. For more details visit www.nps.gov/drto.

3. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.
If you enjoy snorkeling, you'll want to visit this diverse park in Key Largo (MM 102.5). Best known for its offshore reef, the park also offers a great place to lounge on the beach and partake in water activities such as kayaking. Call (305) 451-1202.

4. Do a Flip.
Stop at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key (MM 59). This is where the finned film star Flipper, whose real name was Mitzi, is buried. For information visit www.dolphins.org.

5. Great Sands.
Visit Bahia Honda State Park and Recreation Area at MM 37 to play on the Keys' finest beach. The park is open 8 a.m. until sundown year-round. Visit www.bahiahondapark.com. "Your Place in the Sun" is from the January 2005 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.