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Key West Unlocks the Charm

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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