- Last Updated on Wednesday, 19 September 2012 13:40
- Written by Patti Lavell
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Key West, Florida, the southernmost city in the United States, is a haven for those seeking soothing tropical breezes, tranquil waters and fresh seafood. This island is driven by happy hour and laughter rather than a time clock. Stress is the enemy.
This island continues to be an enormously popular destination for those seeking a vacation from reality and for others who want to flaunt their goods at one-of-a-kind celebrations like Fantasy Fest. What’s behind the large scale appeal? Why all the hubbub over Key West? Well, let me assure you that the list is long but I’ll highlight at least some of the best of the best. Grab a crayon and some paper because you’ll want to take notes.
Let’s start our “Best of Key West” with bars because you’ll probably head straight for one the minute you arrive.
Capt Tony’s Saloon
428 Greene Street
If the walls could talk, you’d hear riveting stories of when the building was the ice house and doubled as the city morgue or about its hay days as a bordello. Through the wood plank floor and out the roof sprouts the “Hanging Tree”. It was from this very tree that several convicted pirates and murderers were hung in the 1800s. Many famous characters have graced this establishment including Key West’s own Hemmingway, Presidents Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor and Jimmy Buffet. Perhaps its most endearing quality is the display of hundreds of bras and panties hanging from the ceiling, left behind by colorful patrons as a symbol of their “support” for this famous landmark. Oh, and watch out for the ghosts. This saloon is haunted by several restless spirits.
201 Duval Street
You can count on finding great entertainment here day or night. The music is always upbeat and loud and the crowd is involved. The menu is average bar food but you want to come here for the addictive atmosphere. In addition to the main bar, there’s Joe’s Tap Room featuring a variety of craft beers on tap, which is a rare find in this town. Like seemingly so many other Key West locations, this one is rich with Hemmingway history and lore. Check out the well-stocked store for the obligatory souvenir T-Shirt.
The Green Parrot
601 Whitehead Street
Just off Duval, this bar’s mantra of “No Sniveling” isn’t a problem because the moment you step through the door, you’ll have a grin on your face. Take time to read the signage; you’ll get good laugh. There’s usually great music here with a local party crowd.
One of the reasons you’ve come to Key West is to dip your weary soul in calm, clear waters. Here are the best of Key West beaches.
Key West’s longest beach, Smathers occupies two miles of man-made sandy beach along Roosevelt Boulevard, on the southern side of the island. Ample parking, picnic tables, chair and water sport rentals, volleyball nets and vending stands make this a very enjoyable place to spend the day. The water here is perfect for swimming, snorkeling, jet skiing and parasailing. The people watching is free.
Higg’s Memorial Beach
Less crowded than Smathers and very close to the heart of Key West, Higg’s boasts a long pier from which to fish and a perfect place for beginner snorkelers. The beach is sandy and the water is shallow. There are several covered pavilions, volleyball nets, a playground and chair/water sport rentals. As if that’s not enough, there’s a beachfront restaurant from which to grab some much needed adult beverages and chow.
This tiny little gem is nothing like the one sporting the same name in Miami. Not even close. Located at the south end of Duval Street, South Beach is a small strip of sand with warm, shallow water and a cement pier. Bring your own lounge chair or rent one but I strongly advise you to arrive early in the day. It’s a small space that quickly gets cramped. The open-air beachside café of the Southernmost Restaurant makes this place quite popular because with just a few steps, you can grab a cold one and go back to your chair to read a book or doze the day away.
Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
Probably the largest of Key West beaches, this eighty-seven acre state park sports a sand/coral rock beach and a pre-Civil War fort. There are no less than three coves from which to swim, snorkel and frolic. The rock-pile barriers not far offshore are often a meeting place for small tropical fish. Bring a picnic and make use of the BBQs to grill up some great beach food to keep you fortified in the sun and water. The park offers a food and drink kiosk if you prefer to travel lightly.
You’d be missing out on one of Key West’s greatest allures if you don’t get out on the water. Rent a jet ski, get on a fishing charter, take a snorkel trip to the reef or make reservations for a sunset cruise. Wander down to the waterfront and look around. You’re bound to find something you can’t resist. Consider these.
Island Safari Tours offers a narrated twenty-seven mile jet ski tour around Key West. The tour has four built-in stops at strategic locations. You’ll find them at the less-crowded east end of town. Book the 9am tour in advance and save about forty bucks which you can put towards happy hour.
Key West Snorkeling Tours will whisk you away in comfort aboard their 78’ catamaran and provide all of the gear you need for an up-close meeting with the colorful inhabitants of the reef. The complimentary beer, wine and soda will keep you hydrated and in the party mood.
Dolphin Watch is Key West’s original dolphin charter operation and they have bringing people and dolphins together since 1986. What’s so wonderful about this charter is the appreciation for the amazing wild animal that the dolphin really is. For too many people, dolphins are captive jesters who wave their pectoral fins at a crowd from a concrete pool and eat dead fish from a bucket. That’s not what a dolphin truly is and this charter does its best to educate and entertain. Reservations are highly recommended.
Back Country Safaris offer something different from the usual trip out to the reef to snorkel. You’ll explore the shallows of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge aboard a 65’ sailboat while kayaking through mangrove islands, snorkel the reef, enjoying a picnic lunch and lounging on a sand bar. All you need to bring is your swim suit, towel and sun screen because the lunch, snorkel gear, beer, wine and soda are provided.
Fury Watersports will help you soar high above the turquoise waters of Key West while you gaze down in wonder at our island paradise. Single and tandem flights are available and for about an hour you’ll get a bird’s eye view of frolicking dolphins and lazy barracudas as they swim below you.
Danger’s Wind and Wine Sunset Sail leaves at 4:30pm from the Westin Hotel Marina and reservations are required. This cruise is different from the other sunset cruises you’ll find in Key West and if you hop aboard the Danger you won’t regret taking the road less traveled. Featuring an array of fine wines, upscale beers and tempting hors d’oeuvres, this cruise is unparalleled for a relaxed and intimate sunset sail.
Let’s talk turkey. And other foods. Key West is packed with places offering up mouthwatering cuisine. Here are a few of the “Best of Key West.”
The Schooner Wharf Bar
202 William Street
Located on the Historic Seaport Walk, this bar is a treasured gem of Old Key West. Its rustic charm and warmth are due in part to its unique nautical décor, its open air setting and the lazy day atmosphere that oozes from the walls. Dig into some raw oysters and shrimp ceviche as you drift back in time.
B&O’s Fish Wagon
801 Caroline Street
This dumpy little shack turns out some wickedly good, fresh food. Check out the conch sandwich dressed in key lime mayo and the soft shell crab platter. Friday night means live music and the crowd is looking for an all night party. If you can hit this place when the ‘Pianimal’ Barry Cuda is playing, you are in for a great time.
700 Waddell Street
Louie’s is a Key West tradition; it’s foodie heaven in an idyllic oceanfront setting. Begin the culinary experience with cocktails on the upper deck, which boasts the most beautiful panoramic view of the ocean that the island has to offer. Once seated in the elegant dining room, order a bottle of red and a starter of salmon tartare with avocado, chipotle and grilled plantains. Who could resist the coriander and pepper rubbed swordfish with cucumber, citrus and Thai fried rice? It’s a fresh dish with layers of flavors that create a winning combination that will bring you back again and again. Indulge in a decadent dessert and a good cognac to round out a great dining experience.
Alonzo’s Oyster Bar
700 Front Street
Overlooking Key West Bight, Alonzo’s has one of the best happy hours in town, but the seafood keeps the crowd going back again and again. How can you beat a bucket of steamed clams for $9, spinach parmesan oysters for $6.50 and a full pound of beer steamed shrimp for $12? Between the great food and indoor and outdoor seating with romantic views, Alonzo’s is a must do.
115 Duval Street
If you love ahi tuna, then Bagatelle is your Mecca. Their version is the best in Key West and it’s served with seaweed salad and udon noodles in a delicious peanut sauce. Just as delicious is the pan seared hogfish served with a crispy potato cake and sautéed spinach. If you’ve never had hogfish, you have no idea what you’re missing.
615 Duval Street
One of Key West’s best Italian eateries, the chefs at Antonia’s know how to serve great seafood and homemade pasta. Order a bottle of red and sample their tender Beef Carpaccio or delicately fried calamari. Don’t even think of passing up their pasta entrees when the choices are so delicious. Dive into Linguine alle Vongole with littleneck clams, olive oil, garlic and a touch of red pepper. You can choose the white wine or fresh tomato sauce. If you don’t like seafood, then order the Fettuccine al Profumo di Tartufo which is served with asparagus, Shiitake and button mushrooms, truffle oil and slivered Parmesan cheese. This place never disappoints.
Key West nightlife is legendary. In addition to the restaurants and bars, there are drag shows, theater and sunset to keep you out on the town until the wee hours.
The Cabaret at La Te Da packs them in on nightly basis to a sellout crowd. Drag Queens extraordinaire Christopher Peterson and Randy Roberts impersonate their favorite celebrities and there’s no lip synching here. You’ll be amazed as they morph into Judy Garland, Bette Davis and Julie Andrews. These queens will leave you second guessing your eyes as they bring forth Joan Rivers, Bette Midler and Cher. Reservations are highly recommended.
Aqua Nightclub boasts several queens who lip sync and entertain with some really good impersonations. Elaborate costumes and playful interaction with the audience are just two of the reasons to see a show at Aqua. Some of these divas are unbelievable dancers leaving a majority of the women in the audience just a wee bit jealous. The queens are beautiful, their make-up is flawless and the hostess does a great job of engaging the audience and picking on easy targets.
801 Bourbon Street is the home of the glamorous Sushi and the 801 Girls. These elegantly dressed divas lip sync as they impersonate some of their all-time favorite female stars. Be prepared to be part of the show because these sequined queens love to tease the audience. A guaranteed great night with plenty of laughs, perhaps some at your own expense!
The Waterfront Playhouse has been entertaining Key West audiences for over seventy years. Located in the heart of Key West’s historic Mallory Square, this not-for-profit, professional theater attracts locals and tourists with a wide range of theatrical fare. The Playhouse is an intimate 150-seat theater located steps from the nightly sunset celebration. Recent hits include BitchSlap!, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Twelve Angry Men.
The Red Barn Theatre has spent the past thirty-two years becoming a cultural cornerstone for the Key West community while building a national reputation for creating big things in a small space. The theatre holds just eighty-eight seats so every show is an intimate experience. Jimmy Buffett, Philip Burton and Tennessee Williams have all made the Red Barn a part of their cultural experiences while in Key West.
The Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square truly is world famous. As you wait to watch the sun dip into the watery horizon, you’ll witness exciting performances of tight rope walking, magic, juggling and knife throwing. Be prepared for trained dogs and cats, some of which ride unicycles and others jump through fire. When that magic moment finally comes and the sun kisses the horizon and slips out of sight, watch carefully. If you’re lucky you just might witness the elusive “green flash”.
After waking up on day two in Key West, you’ll need to refuel before you tackle another string of adventurous activities. Brunch is a sport in Key West and like everything else on this island, it’s to be savored at a relaxed pace. There’s no need to rush. The ocean and its inhabitants aren’t going anywhere. Some of Key West’s best brunch spots are:
729 Thomas Street
This eclectic and casual restaurant has indoor and outdoor seating but if you want the real experience, sit outside at the colorful tables among the roosters and unusual art. Enjoy a mimosa with freshly squeezed OJ and an irresistible classic, the Key West shrimp and grits. If you’re trying to recover from a rough night, the pecan pancakes with real maple syrup or the bacon benedict are just what the doctor ordered.
1202 Simonton Street
The crab benedict on a fresh baked croissant with homemade hollandaise is a heavenly start to the day. The french toast with Captain Morgan spiced rum bananas foster sauce is a decadent choice that will leave you in peaceful carbohydrate coma. The home fries and stone ground grits are excellent ways to fill in any remaining cracks. Wash it all down with some hot and spicy Bloody Marys or even better, go crazy with a bottle of bubbly. Or two.
Cuban Coffee Queen
284 Margaret Street
This place is little more than wooden shack with a window from which to order some breakfast basics that make your belly happy. Pan Cubano is simply pressed Cuban bread smeared with butter but once you taste it you can’t get enough. Try the Main Lander; three eggs, American cheese and your choice of ham, bacon, sausage or pork roll on an Amoroso hoagie. I suggest that you add banana peppers. They offer a seemingly endless variety of coffee drinks including Bucci, which is a shot of very strong Cuban espresso. One of those and you’ll be charged all day long. If your heart can take it.
300 Petronia Street
Sink your teeth into an omelet stuffed with Norwegian smoked salmon, goat cheese, chives and cream cheese and order up a side of potatoes while you’re at it. If you’re into crepes, try a basic one with Nutella or a fruity one filled with fresh pineapple and coconut. Choose either honey or caramel in which to drown it.
An article about the best of Key West wouldn’t be complete without giving Fantasy Fest its due. For ten straight days in October, Key West’s attitude of anything goes kicks into overdrive and body painters turn naked party goers into incredible pieces of art. Key West is a people-watchers dream but during Fantasy Fest, the watching becomes world class and like no other place on earth. The activities includes dance parties, drag contents, a Bahamas food festival, pool parties, a Chippendale review, bikini contests and of course, the culminating event is the Captain Morgan Parade chock full of floats and elaborate costumes.
It’s nearly impossible to accurately describe all of the reasons why Key West is the perfect paradise. If you surveyed a healthy variety of people on the island, I suspect that you’d get a lot of different reasons why they feel drawn to live or visit this particular slice of heaven. I hope that some of the things on my best of Key West list make it onto yours.