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The Key to the Keys

MIDDLE KEYS ChikiTiki Bar & Grille Hidden away in a Marathon marina, ChikiTiki serves dockside grub with Mexican touches, such as a green-chile cheeseburger and spiced fries. In most other ways, however, it's an archetype of its genre: the smell of sea air; a bar crowded with salts of all types. And, yes, that's a mousetrap holding down your bill. 1200 Oceanview Ave., Marathon; 305/743-9204; dinner for four $40.

LOWER KEYS No Name Pub This pub was established in 1935, which may be the last time it got a thorough cleaning. At least the dollar bills covering every square inch of wall and rafter seem to have been there forever, as have the characters wearing beards and trucker caps and eating tangy smoked-fish dip and grouper sandwiches off paper plates. The point is to be pleased with yourself for having found the place. N. Watson Blvd., Big Pine Key; 305/872-9115; dinner for four $70.

KEY WEST Alice's at La Te Da Go for a poolside table among the palms at the campy La Te Da guesthouse. Then go for the yellowtail snapper in Key lime beurre blanc, the "magic meat loaf," or the rack of Australian lamb. Most of all, go to meet Alice Weingarten, the island legend who visits every table wearing a floppy toque and cat's-eye glasses—the consummate Key West hostess. 1125 Duval St.; 305/296-6706; dinner for four $140.

Blue Heaven Restaurant In a former bordello allegedly frequented by Ernest Hemingway—hardly a unique claim in Key West—Blue Heaven is huge among the locals for a lively bar and breakfast in the backyard, complete with picnic tables and clucking chickens. It might seem untoward to eat eggs in such company, but the omelettes shouldn't be missed. 729 Thomas St.; 305/296-8666; breakfast for four $40.

Louie's Backyard Van Aken made his reputation here before being anointed king of New World cuisine. But Louie's maintains its status as an institution and is still a favorite among residents, despite the crush of tourists feasting on the innovative Caribbean-influenced food: lobster braised in truffle butter; grilled tuna served with a sweet soy, papaya, and seaweed salad. The "backyard" is really the Atlantic. 700 Waddell Ave., Key West; 305/294-1061; dinner for four $150.

STANDOUT BEACHES
Protected by a coral reef, the 113-mile stretch from Key Largo to Key West isn't lined with luscious white sand. But there are a few beaches worth a mention. Anne's Beach, a mere blip on Lower Matecumbe Key, has picnic tables, a boardwalk, and just enough sand to keep your toes happy.

On Big Pine Key, Bahia Honda was nearly wiped out by Hurricane Georges in 1999. Since rebuilt, it's once again a lovely crescent of sand with good swimming and views of a remnant of the old Flagler Railway bridge.

In Marathon, the family-oriented Sombrero Beach is perhaps the best thing about the otherwise grotty town.

The beaches on Key West can get as hectic as Mallory Square at sunset. Beat the crowds by going to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, which has clear, deep water and a perfect—and perfectly unknown—location for watching the sun go down.

SHOPPING
In a place where a plastic daisy on your flip-flops counts as a stylistic flourish, don't expect to find exceptional retail opportunities. There are a few specialty shops worth mentioning (all are in Key West). T-shirt shops have taken over Duval Street, Key West's main drag, like kudzu; for worthwhile gifts, try Fast Buck Freddie's (500 Duval St.; 305/294-2007), an old-time department store.

The local answer to Kiehl's, Key West Aloe (524 Front St.; 305/294-5592) is full of lab-coated assistants eager to administer to your sunburn.

They may not fly back home, but the colorful, boisterously patterned shirts and dresses at Key West Handprint Fabrics & Fashions (201 Simonton St.; 305/294-9535) are pretty much the town uniform.

Key West claims to have been the home of 11 Pulitzer winners; the best bookstore is Key West Island Books (513 Fleming St.; 305/294-2904).

If you must have one of those manatee-shaped mailboxes you've seen lining U.S. 1, Pelican Poop (314 Simonton St.; 305/296-3887) is the place to buy it.

two worthy detours

The shops at Treasure Village (MM 86.7 Oceanside, Islamorada; 305/852-0511) are skippable, but the giant, anatomically correct lobster is worth inspecting, as is April Fool, at 71 inches the smallest sailboat ever to cross the Atlantic.

Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park (305/664-2540) is a 280-acre virgin forest-one of the few places in the world to see old-growth gumbo-limbo, mahogany, lignum vitae, and fig trees.

clichés worth doing (once)

SUNSET AT MALLORY SQUARE Key West's legendary freak show—the contortionist, the fire juggler, the escape artist—must be seen once. The Rouse-ified square brims with the pink-faced and inebriated, but it's a tradition to uphold.

CONCH FRITTERS Local conch is endangered, so the fried bits on your plate (or the chewy bits in your chowder) probably came from the Turks and Caicos. In any case, conch is the local version of escargot: a mere beast of burden for more eminent accompaniments, whether cocktail sauce or the hot-pepper jelly and wasabi served at Louie's Backyard.

HEMINGWAY'S KEYS Papa's ghost is inescapable here, especially in Key West, where he lived for nine years. The museum in his former house and writing studio (907 Whitehead St., Key West; 305/294-1136; www.hemingwayhome.com) is an exercise in imagination-stretching: here Hemingway sat, here he wrote, here he swam, here he argued with his wife. But to replicate Hemingway's life, you need to go elsewhere, like the bar at Sloppy Joe's, or fishing at sea, where he was happiest.

The majority of this story was excerpted from "Best of the Florida Keys," an article by Peter Frank that appeared in Travel + Leisure in March 2003. The article was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details and prices directly with the service establishments before making travel plans.

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