Key West Unlocks the Charm

Key West Unlocks the Charm

Rich Franco
Rich Franco
The Wackiest Key high on charm and low on attitude

Key West is a curious confluence of history and hubris, sleaze and sophistication, literature and licentiousness. A two-by-four-mile sliver, it's big enough to contain poets, painters, crooked politicians, cigar makers, lawyers, transvestites, and the owners of far too many T-shirt shops. While this reliance on tourism constantly threatens to destroy a place that has survived it all, from hurricanes to the AIDS epidemic, nothing can stop—or whitewash—the legendary kookiness. I recently popped in to see a psychic there. She said I needed rest and that the spirits told her I do something both creative and stressful for a living—writing, she declared. "What do you write, honey?" she asked. "Fiction or un-fiction?" Therein lies the definition of the real Key West: it's both fiction and un-fiction.

Where to Eat
There's no point in traveling to the only place in America that never has frost if you don't spend as much time as possible outdoors.
Alice's on Duval 1114 Duval St.; 305/292-4888; dinner for two $65. This restaurant is not technically outdoors, but it sure feels that way. It has windows all around, suggesting the Key West of 50 years ago. Balmy breezes complement the wonderful food. Be on the lookout for Alice—you can't miss her. Try the spicy pink-vodka conch chowder, the papaya-marinated skirt steak, and the macadamia-coconut-crusted shrimp.
Blue Heaven 729 Thomas St.; 305/296-8666; breakfast for two $20. Although it also serves lunch and dinner, come for Breakfast with the Roosters. While eating fresh fruit and banana bread or seafood Benedict, you'll find Easter-perfect chicks and their nervous parents chirping underfoot in the dirt yard.
Casablanca Café American 904 Duval St.; 305/292-2300; dinner for two $50. It's fairly new in a town known for here-today-gone-tomorrow, but the buzz is that Casablanca's going to make it. Start with hand-rolled Key West Havanas (smoked chicken, chorizo, black olives, and jack cheese in a pastry leaf served with a burnt orange-mango barbecue sauce), then have sautéed yellowtail snapper with shaved fennel salad and artichoke-and-black-olive salsa cruda.
Latitudes Beach Café Sunset Key; 305/292-4313; lunch for two $40. The restaurant at Sunset Key Guest Cottages is open to the public, as is the beach ($20 for an all-day pass). There is a brand-new pool bar called Flippers, and waiters will even serve you lunch while you sunbathe. The launch from Key West takes just 10 minutes, but you have to reserve a seat. Try the guava-glazed chicken breast sandwich.
Louie's Backyard 700 Waddell Ave.; 305/294-1061; lunch for two $40. Facing the Atlantic Ocean, this restaurant is in a gorgeous, pale-pink restored house, with deck dining beneath two huge mahoe (also called Florida hibiscus) trees. It may well be the town's best-known and most popular restaurant. Order the seared sea scallops in a roasted-coconut-and-curry cream sauce, served over lobster linguine.
Mangoes 700 Duval St.; 305/292-4606; lunch for two $40. Celebrating Key West's Bahamian and Cuban influences, Mangoes' specialties include fritters stuffed with tender conch and vegetables, served with cocktail sauce and Key lime mustard. The restaurant's courtyard has nooks for romance and huge umbrellas to block both the sun and tropical rains. There's also an airy upstairs balcony overlooking tourist-trampled Duval Street, a good vantage spot for people-watching.

Two Worth Going Indoors for

Antonia's 615 Duval St.; 305/294-6565; dinner for two $60. The locals and tourists who know Key West restaurants were dismayed in 1996 when a fire next door took Antonia's with it. It has reopened, and the exquisite northern Italian food is better than ever.
Café Marquesa 600 Fleming St.; 305/292-1244; dinner for two $75. This see-and-be-seen restaurant is gorgeous, with mahogany molding, stone floors, and bay windows. Take your pick: mango barbecue prawns with salsa verde and red bean relish, sesame-crusted tuna with miso rémoulade, or tequila- and lime-cured salmon tostada with habanero salsa, crème fraîche, and caviar.

Bring on the Night
Much of Key West's sense of fun comes from its gay residents, but there's no separatism—everyone's invited to this island party.

Atlantic Shores Resort 510 South St.; 305/ 296-2491. This low-slung Art Deco motel offers some of the best entertainment in town. Sunday night dances are a tradition in Key West, and Atlantic Shores has been hosting one for 15 years. It begins poolside at 8 p.m. and extends along the 150-foot pier jutting into the Atlantic. A DJ plays manic house music and people dance under the stars. Thursday night brings Atlantic Shores' extremely popular Cinema Shores. The parking lot is transformed into an outdoor theater with free popcorn and servers peddling drinks to patrons reclining on chaise longues. Children (depending on the movie) and dogs (always) are welcome, and there are door prizes, including certificates for facials and dinners. The movies begin at 8 p.m. and cost $3. (Daytime visitors to the motel pool—you can rent a chaise and a towel for $3—should know that it's the only public "clothing-optional" pool in town.)
801 Cabaret 801 Duval St.; 305/294-4737. The best of many Duval Street nightclubs—Bourbon Street Bar, Diva's, and Epoch are others—that offer cabaret shows starring drag queens. A few of them manage to make Lady Chablis of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame seem downright frumpish. For something even more unusual, stop by Sunday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. for a frothy frozen drink and a spot of bingo. The caller is a comedian dressed as a nun.

Lush Life
For over a quarter of a century, artist and self-described "old hippie" Nancy Forrester has cultivated her back yard into a jungle of palms and succulents, a collection so breathtaking that Charles Kuralt rhapsodized over the garden in his last book. A few years ago, she opened it to the public, calling it Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden (1 Free School Lane, no cars; 305/ 294-0015; $6 admission). Forrester and her longtime companion, Elliott Wright, nurture more than 150 species of palms, including specimens from the Pacific Marquesas Islands and the Seychelles, and near-extinct ones from Cuba's Pinar del Río and Oriente provinces. The garden is also lush with bromeliads, orchids, arums, ferns, and bog plants—it's an antidote to a somewhat overdeveloped island.

The Monroe County May Hill Russell Library (700 Fleming St.; 305/292-3595) has a lovely oasis, thanks to a gift of more than $100,000 from a wealthy benefactor. (Word has it he was murdered by his lover—the librarians can provide the details.) He gave the money to be used for a palm garden; the result is both lovely and free. You might see Annie Dillard wandering around, or Alison Lurie, Ann Beattie, or any of the other writers who live either full- or part-time on the island.

Three-ring Sunset
Yes, Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square is hokey and taxing. Locals would never, of course, but that doesn't exempt you. Arrive 30 minutes before sunset: nature's show is magnificent, but the real draw is the manic backup performances from an array of sword swallowers, contortionists, and tightrope walkers. For such a touristy spectacle, you'll be shocked at how much attitude gets thrown around. For example, there's the Hungarian circus performer who lifts heavy objects—with his mouth—such as a car tire or a chair, but not before asking daringly, "Do you give a daahmn?" Or even better, the unicyclist with a hoop-jumping Vietnamese pig; he taunts bratty children with remarks like, "Tell your mom it wasn't really a good idea to drink while she was pregnant with you."

Old Old Town
Bahama Village, the historic Afro-Caribbean section of Old Town, is much as it was five generations ago when black and white Bahamians and Cubans settled on this island. Their descendants still live in tiny shotgun cottages. The area is filled with small markets, bakeries, barbershops, rib shacks. Lots of friendly dogs and barn animals roam the streets. "The fact that it hasn't been lost—that paint-peeling, Tennessee Williams— esque, living, breathing community—is amazing," says tour guide Sharon Wells. "It represents a Key West that is rapidly disappearing." You can enter at Petronia and Duval, where an elaborate wrought-iron archway heralds the neighborhood. Bahama Village is bordered by Angela, Duval, and Louisa Streets.

The Right Guides
The island isn't big, but with so many layers of history, it helps to have a guide. Exactly which kind of guide you want is up to you.

About six years ago, Lloyd Mager was doing odd jobs (the way many people support themselves on this island if they lack that trusty trust fund) when he decided to transform his passion for the place and his hatred for development into a career. Of sorts. Mager runs the extremely unstructured Lloyd's Original Key West Nature Bike Tours ($15; 305/294-1882).

While Key West is mellow, Mager, born in the Bronx and reared in New Jersey, is not. It is immediately clear that he was once an inveterate horn-blower who gave inappropriate finger and hand signals to anything that stood in his way. As a tour guide, he is all coiled energy, a machete-brandishing hellion on wheels. He uses the tool to hack open coconuts, which he carries in his bike basket. (He also carries Key West limes, cutting them open and squeezing the juice into the coconut. His followers get to gulp the irresistible combination, accompanied by his off-key version of "You put de lime in de coconut…") Making his way into people's yards, he plucks and serves up all manner of fruit—mangoes, star fruit, sapodillas. Too much traffic, overdevelopment, or a recent ordinance that keeps him out of the historic cemetery (no bikes allowed) can send Mager into a rant while he's riding, but he's a nice man, really. He occasionally makes a mistake when describing architecture or island history, but he never errs with plants, trees, or Key West's gloriously aromatic flowers, including gardenia, frangipani, and jasmine. He will hold a blossom to your nose and order you to sniff. Don't refuse. The man has a machete.

Been-here-so-long-she's-a-native Sharon Wells wields a weapon of her own: an exhaustive knowledge of the island's architecture and history. An artist, writer and photographer (check out her Key West posters and photographs of the cemetery), Wells leads Architectural Strolls, the Historic 1847 Cemetery Stroll, Bike Tours, and Personalized Island City Strolls ($15—$20; 305/294-8380). She knows the island characters, politics, gossip, and still-secret picturesque lanes. And she has a great laugh. It's like going on a tour with someone you also would invite for a drink. One more thing—she was generous enough to create Sharon Wells' Walking and Biking Guide to Historic Key West, which contains several maps, self-guided tours, and lots of useful information. It's free and available at hotels and tourist offices.

Where to Stay
Dewey House and La Mer Hotel 504 and 506 South St.; 800/354-4455 and 305/296-5611, fax 305/294-8272; doubles from $180. Under the same ownership, Key West's only two B&B's on the water are Victorian houses with nicely decorated rooms, some of which have balconies.
Island City House 411 William St.; 800/634-8230 or 305/294-5702, fax 305/294-1289; suites from $165. On one of the most beautiful streets in the historic district, the grounds of this inn are reminiscent of a jungle—all tangled vines and fan palms. The 24 rooms and parlor suites are in three renovated historical structures: Island City House (a three-story Victorian mansion), the Cigar House (a red, cypress-wood house), and the Arch House (a Victorian carriage house). It's dark and breezy in a Heathcliff-and-Catherine sort of way.
Marquesa Hotel 600 Fleming St.; 305/292-1919, fax 305/294-2121; doubles from $215. If God is in the details, then the Marquesa is His island hangout. The outside is stunning, with two pools, waterfalls, and lush landscaping. The 27 airy rooms and suites have English armoires, pine sleigh beds from Indonesia, and marble bathrooms; there isn't even a hint of the tropical-flower motif that is ubiquitous in Key West.
Paradise Inn 819 Simonton St.; 800/888-9648 or 305/ 293-8007, fax 305/293-0807; doubles from $240. Housed in a Caribbean-style compound, with night-blooming jasmine, ylang-ylang, and gumbo-limbo (known as the tourist tree because it's reddish and it peels), the 18 suites and cottages are as charming as the surrounding area. There's a fountain-fed pool, a hot tub, and a lotus pond.
Pier House Resort and Caribbean Spa 1 Duval St.; 800/327-8340 or 305/296-4600, fax 305/296-7569; doubles from $229. A larger hotel with some grace, the Pier House has 128 rooms and 14 suites with balconies and terraces. Go for the new Harbourfront building: every room has an ocean view. Be sure to indulge with a Caribbean Coma massage or an aroma loofah salt glow treatment at the spa, which is housed in a separate building. The Chart Room bar is a late-night hangout for writers, weirdos, and winos (often all three in one).
Reach Resort 1435 Simonton St.; 800/874-4118 or 305/296-5000, fax 305/296-2830; doubles from $309. The Reach is a grand pink resort. It has a good-size private beach and 150 rooms on the island's Atlantic side. Spring for a room with a beach view; it makes a big difference. Also, have a meal at the cabana bar on the beach.
Simonton Court Historic Inn & Cottages 320 Simonton St.; 800/944-2687 or 305/294-6386, fax 305/293- 8446; doubles from $150. The whole is equal to the sum of its parts: a Victorian mansion, an inn in a restored 1880 cigar factory, and five little cigar maker's cottages. It's a quiet and lush enclave with a surprise—four small pools surrounded by tropical trees and blooming plants.
Sunset Key Guest Cottages 10 minutes by launch from Key West; 888/ 477-7786 or 305/292-5300, fax 305/ 292-5395; cottages from $325. This private island, formerly called Tank Island by the locals because the Navy stored fuel there, is now managed by Hilton. If you've got the money, you could do worse than to spend it on one of the 37 cottages (but don't settle for one without a view of the Gulf). A private chef is available, as is grocery delivery and much, much more.

The Dead Zone

In Key West, even the dead have personality. You'll find that out during a trip to the local cemetery, which dates to 1847. One of the few nationwide where people are buried in white-washed plots aboveground—the island is solid limestone, difficult to excavate—the 15-acre cemetery is treated like a park. It sits right in the middle of Old Town (the main entrance is at the corner of Margaret and Angela Streets), and is filled with Christmas palms and gumbo-limbo and plumeria trees. The cemetery is not merely a convenient shortcut; it can also teach a humor-laced history lesson.

Take a walk down one of the palm-lined avenues to find the succinct and guilt-inducing tombstone—the one reading i told you i was sick—commemorating barkeep Pearl Roberts. Then look for the faint praise on the marble headstone of Thomas Romer, a black Bahamian, privateer, and good citizen for 65 of his 108 years. (Sure beats being known for eternity as a devoted fan of Julio Iglesias.)

Sometimes the pathos cuts deeper than you might expect: Note, for example, the tombstone of Abraham Lincoln Sawyer, a 40-inch-tall dwarf whose last request was to be buried in a normal-size grave (he was). Or the portion of the cemetery featuring pink granite gravestones for three Yorkshire terriers and Elfina, a pet deer.

Who says dead men have no politics?There are graves for members of Cuban fraternal lodges, a lone bronze soldier honoring those who went down with the Maine, and a memorial to the Cuban martyrs of the 1868 revolution. There is even a priests' plot, where nuns cannot be buried. (Except, perhaps, the one from Sunday night bingo at 801 Cabaret.)

Local Color

It would be a terrible mistake to assume that an island popular with creative types necessarily has good art galleries. What it does have is an abundance of overpriced, uninspired and uninspiring, seen-it-all-before places. Still, there are a few worth checking out.

Ferrondipity 517 Fleming St.; 305/292-3393. Now in a new space, Ferron Bell's paintings and props are wry, pun-filled affairs: a paperweight depicting bluefish with legs is called The Blues Are Running. And the painting of a house with cocktails perched on the roof?Drinks on the House. Bell will talk your ear off (hmm . . . perhaps there's a painting in that) and try to plan your stay. "There's a parade tonight, you must go," he'll say, a study in sweet arrogance and spaciness as he wanders after you halfway down the block.
Magic Island 518 Fleming St.; 305/ 296-4939. Owned and run by artist Fred Gros, Magic Island shows wonderful folk art from rural pockets of Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and the Caribbean. His prices are good, even for works by well-known artists.
Mindless Matter 531 Whitehead St.; 305/293-0999. Gems and junk, old and new, sit tucked into the tiny shop where artist Nancy Carlson paints furniture, waits for customers, and worries about paying the rent—typical Key West activities. Look for work by local artists.

Fun with Dolphins

My only prior contact with dolphins was at the New York aquarium in Coney Island—a nice enough facility, but not exactly the ocean. It did, however, give me sufficient exposure to sea mammals to make them irresistible. And now here I was, participating in Key West's Dolphin Watch, chasing animals up to four times my size: a pod of dolphins tearing through the coastal waters at close to 30 miles an hour. Fortunately a catamaran (the Paty C.) and gruff Captain Ron Canning were close at hand.

Canning has tracked this particular pod of bottle-nosed dolphins for more than 10 years, developing a paternal possessiveness in the process. (Rather than take on the characteristics of a dolphin, Captain Ron—with his 30 years of sailing and diving experience—is more of an old crustacean: a salty character who likes to hang around animals.)

But the amiability of his first mate—a Chocolate Labrador retriever named Pisces, who was possibly the best sailor on the boat—makes up for the captain's irascibility. She trots around with an enviable assurance, posing on the prow, ears flying, scanning the horizon. When she spots a dolphin, she begs for permission to plunge right in. She then paddles straight for the pod, at a pace you wouldn't think possible. The rest of us slide in and are told to follow Pisces. It's a little surreal, swimming in pursuit of a dog and her dolphins.

More often than not, the dolphins double back, their large, pearly gray bodies flashing right under us. I don't feel fear, only fascination. Just as we have depicted sharks to be more randomly savage than they are, we have domesticated dolphins, draining the wildness from them. But these really are wild, and though some have been acquainted with Captain Ron and his boat for many years, none even remotely resemble pets. We had been told not to attempt to touch them, but later, at Key Largo's similar-but-different Dolphins Plus, I got to do just that. (Having had one dolphin experience, like an addict I wanted another.)

Purportedly the oldest swimming-with-dolphins program in the country, Dolphins Plus has been run by the Borguss family for more than 15 years. Previously, dolphins were used for entertainment only in Sea World—type shows. Calling itself a marine mammal research and education center, Dolphins Plus pioneered "animal-assisted therapy." The family allowed disabled children to interact with the dolphins in a controlled environment, and when the experiment proved successful, they decided to extend the same opportunities to other children and then to adults. They now offer two swims, structured and nonstructured. In one, you experience planned and supervised contact with the dolphins and their trainer. In the other, you simply swim in the same enclosure with the untrained animals.

Before anyone is allowed into the water, the group leaders give an hour-long, fact-filled briefing, and, unlike Captain Ron, they actually solicit questions. Among the more curious capacities of the dolphin is its ability to gather via echolocation information about what is going on inside a swimmer's body. They can tell, for instance, if you have just eaten, if you have an inorganic implant like a metal pin, or if you are pregnant.

Our leaders took us to the docks, singly or in pairs, where we made our first physical contact. Up close and grinning, the dolphins are as appealing as puppies. Since moving arms frighten them, we were told to let them come to us. As I squatted low, my motionless hand stretched over the water, a 400-pound dolphin named Squirt swam under my palm, letting me give her a "body rub." Her smooth, muscular flank was as hard as vulcanized rubber.

Soon I slid into the water, and, arm still out, hitched a ride on her dorsal fin. As someone who has always adored speed, I found it exhilarating to plow through the water by the side of a creature so much more powerful than myself. It is a bit like your first ride on a horse at the moment it breaks into a canter. As in the case of horse and rider, a mysterious relationship exists. I cannot claim I developed this kind of rapport with Squirt in the space of a half-hour, but I can say I had a perfectly lovely time. Especially when she propelled me, feet flexed, arms held in a V, headfirst through the water. It was more fun than an adult is legitimately entitled to.

Later, I pondered the one thing we'll probably never know: what on earth the dolphins must think of all this frothy interspecies nonsense. Perhaps someday we'll find out.

Dolphin Watch Key West; 305/294-6306; $75 per person. Dolphins Plus Key Largo; 305/451-1993; $85 for unstructured session, $100 for structured.

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