Key West-A Travelogue

KEY WEST TRAVELOGUE


So, here we are. Multiple visits to The Conch Republic. Cruise Ship stop in '05, Spring Break in '06, '07, '10, '13, and '15. Getaway in '17. This travelogue is my attempt to help out folks who want to visit Paradise with a little advance intel. Not exactly an insider's guide, but more like Key West viewed through the eyes of a repeat offender. An opening word: SUNSCREEN! Seriously. If you're a repeat visitor to this travelogue, and want to just see the latest, just search for the term "2017 UPDATE"

A little about my vacation style: I consider myself more a traveler than a tourist. I want to know where the locals eat, like to walk/bike around, and really get a "feel" for where I am. I like a good tourist attraction, but get great pleasure going on, as Pooh put it, "an explore." I prefer active over passive, local over chain. I'm not above a trip to Disney or stepping on board a cruise ship, but I'm really in my element discovering the out-of-the way, especially if food's involved. Put it this way: I think Guy Fieri, the host of "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" has the greatest job in the history of the world.

So, Key West. My wife's birthplace. We first realized we loved the place when our cruise ship docked there April 7, 2005-Her birthday. First time she'd been back since infancy. As we explored, we started to wonder if we really had to get back on the boat. We were smitten.

Getting There

Our six trips to KW, we've flown direct. Yes, it's more expensive, but by the time you add up rental car from Miami, and the time it takes to drive (Miami is 155 miles from KW, Lauderdale's even farther), it's a wash in my book. We've spoken to folks who've made the drive. It's long, flat, and not all that interesting. Note to white-knuckle flyers: EYW is a small airfield. Yes, you'll be walking across the tarmac. Delta's flying 737s in and out. As our pilot put it: "The landing may be more firm than what you are accustomed to." It's really not that bad, but neither is it LAX smooth. Coming out of Atlanta, we use Delta, but United, and American also serve EYW. Once you've got your luggage, it's $7-$9/person on the taxi to get where you're going, and you'll be there in 15 minutes tops. 

Where To Stay

Best answer-A friend's house. Seriously, KW hotel rates can be comparable to NYC if you're not careful. Our Six trips have found us staying at five different places.

2006. The Southern Cross. Sadly, the oldest hotel on Key West is no more. Was a seriously cool place.

2007. The Southernmost Hotel. Great place. Beach access, beautiful pool. At the quiet end of Duval Street, a short walk to the iconic "Southernmost" marker. $250-ish per night. A little cheaper than its partner, Southernmost on the Beach, but with access to all the same amenities. Southernmost Hotel is a great midrange (for Key West) place to stay.

2010. The Fairfield Inn. This was one of the most pleasant surprises I've ever had in lodging. You're thinking "A Fairfield? Really?" Well, it was recommended by a former Key Wester, and she was dead-on. We had a suite for $179/night, almost unheard of on Key West. Free breakfast, and not just muffins & coffee. Hot and cold cereal, hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit, muffins, bagels, toast, Jimmy Dean sandwiches, coffee, juice, milk, and make-your-own Belgian waffles. For our family of three, this saved $25-$35/day, easily. The staff is outrageously attentive, wonderful pool, close to stuff you can actually use, like stores and restaurants, great bar, our room was uber-quiet, and nice and dark at night. So what's the catch? Well, it is 2 miles from Duval. Actually, not a bad walk, and the city bus is nearby. Rent a bike or a scooter and you're golden. The only blemish on our stay was the sleeper sofa that our daughter would have used. The single worst sleeper sofa I have ever encountered. The first night, she wound up sleeping in the king bed w/ my wife & me. But, when I brought it up to the manager next morning, he sent someone to a local store, bought and inflated an air mattress for Amanda, and knocked $50 off the first night's stay. From there on out, smooth sailing. If you take a suite, and intend on putting someone on the sleeper sofa, I suggest bringing an air mattress. Well worth it. But, as I said, otherwise a fantastic stay.

2013. The Avalon. In 2013, we decided to do a bit of a blow-out trip, in honor of our daughter's impending HS Graduation. She didn't disappoint-Valedictorian! So, we decided on The Avalon. What a gem! Located at the quiet end of Duval. Comfortable, quiet, great breakfast on the porch. Yvonne, the manager is the best! Across the street from Tropical Rentals, so it's easy to grab a bike, scooter, or electric car. Also convenient to two bus stops, including one that gets you to the airport in 10-15 minutes. Grab a weekly bus pass for $8, and save a fortune in cab fare. The vibe of the Avalon is very laid back, very European. Afternoon cookies and iced tea is a great treat. Minor nit-pick: the WiFi can be a bit sluggish at times, but it's usually fine. (and it's free.) Not the cheapest place on the island, but rates do vary by season, and you must always factor in what you save by having breakfast provided. 2017 UPDATE: We were back for three nights. Still spectacular


2015. Key West Naval Airstation. Are you a veteran or active member of our Armed Forces? Is someone in your family? A friend, perhaps? First up, thanks for your (or their) service. Secondly: You've just won the Key West Lottery. Thanks to the Navy Gateways (hotels)/Navy Getaways (Townhomes, etc), you've got access to hands down the best lodging deal on the island. The hotel is $60-70 a night. Thanks to my step-mom (retired Army), we stayed in a three-bedroom townhome with a bath-and-a-half and full kitchen for $100/night. That's not per person. That's TOTAL. You have to book in advance, you must stay with the service person, and you have to pass through security each time you come "home," but my goodness, what an amazing deal. The Station is right next to the HQ of the bus line, there's a fantastic outdoor pool (open on weekends, $2 use fee for civilians). No maid service in the townhomes, but you can swap out your towels and linens any time you want. The decor is, as my Dad put it, "Early Econo-lodge," but again: $100 a night for 3 bedrooms! The only downside: A fair number of Key West Roosters on the base, so a white noise app and some earplugs for light sleepers, depending on whether or not a rooster views under your window as his turf. If you can at all take advantage of this service, do so. I must add: every Naval guard we encountered was the epitome of friendly and professional. 2017 UPDATE: We spent two nights in one of the two-bedroom trailers. Quite comfortable, fewer roosters, and a mere $75/night. BONUS: if you stay in the townhomes or trailers, two of you get a free breakfast buffet.


Getting Around

Key West is a small place. Frankly, most of our visits, we've hoofed it. The entire island is roughly 2 miles by 4 miles, and you can walk the entirety of Duval in 25 minutes at a leisurely pace. Cabs are abundant, but to me, a pricey way to get around. I'd rather walk off my dinner.

For a first time visit, you can get a great overview of the island by taking the Conch Tour Train. Touristy, yeah, but a great introduction and a nice way to build a list of things you'd like to do. Crowded when the cruise ships are in dock, but they do add trains to keep up with demand.

Everywhere you turn, there's places to rent bicycles, scooters, and electric cars. The electric cars get pricey in a hurry. I'll typically take a day or two to rent a scooter. A 50cc scooter capable of carrying driver and passenger will run around $50 a day. Some places, particularly on-site at a hotel are more expensive. No real recommendations here, although I did have a very pleasant experience renting from Fun Rentals. Rusty is a great guy, very easy to work with. Right next door to The Fairfield Inn. There is no helmet law, but that's your decision. Me, I wear a helmet on my bicycle, so I've got no problem w/ a scooter helmet.

The best way to get around larger chunks of the island is the Key West bus system. My father is convinced, (and I agree with him) that the city does its best to keep the inner workings of the bus system hidden from tourists, so as not to tick off the cabbies. My advice to you? Grab a copy of the bus schedule, get to know it, and pony up the $8 for a weekly pass. The buses do vary, from dead-on-time to island time, but once you know the system, it's a great way to get where you're going cheaply. 

Duval Street

Let's talk about Duval Street. This is the most touristy area of town. Margaritaville, The Hard Rock Cafe, Coach, and many other "any-given-mall" shops can be found here. There's also local fixtures like Sloppy Joe's, and a bunch o' bars. If pub crawling is your thing, you'll be in heaven. Warning-when the cruise ships are docked, Duval can be like Disney on a bad day. That is if Disney were overflowing with alcohol and questionable t-shirts. However, get one block off Duval, and the tranquility quickly returns. You can always keep track of when the ships are due, thanks to the City of Key West.

As you travel south down Duval, you'll encounter a great many galleries. Some of these galleries wouldn't be out of place in NYC. (The Wyland gallery comes to mind.) There are also many galleries that feature the work of local artists, often at great prices. 

For an awesome selection of local artists all in one place, try the Guild Hall Gallery. From handmade knick-knacks at a souvenir price point, to fine art costing thousands, it's all here. And it's all local.

One of our favorite shops to stop into is Key West Aloe. Wonderful products, made with lots of aloe. You're gonna need it!

Where to Eat

Oh. My. Goodness. This is why I like to walk around Key West. So much good food to be had. If you've got fussy eaters, you can find chains and franchises, but why oh why would you do that?

Breakfast

Two places spring to mind. Let's start with Pepe's. They are the oldest restaurant on Key West, doesn't look like anything from the outside, but the breakfast is excellent and the prices are reasonable. This is a very traditional place, almost diner comfort food. They serve an awesome homemade granola with yogurt and fruit that'll power you up for the rest of the day, along with great omelets and a delighftul fruit cup (benefits of being in the tropics).

Down on the docks, you'll find Turtle Kraals. This restaurant and bar serves great food all day, but I'm partial to the breakfast, mainly because compared to the rest of the menu, it's the best bang for the buck. Menu a little more upscale that Pepe's, but still with that hometown feel. Plus the added attraction of watching the boats come and go.

Lunch

When I'm on Key West, lunch tends to be a grab-on-the-go affair, essentially whatever strikes my fancy. There are a few places, though that strike it more regularly. Many of my later dinner suggestions are also decent for lunch.

On our 2010 trip, I made a most pleasant discovery. Out on N. Roosevelt, near The Fairfield Inn is a rather non-descript Winn-Dixie plaza. In that plaza are some outstanding little local joints, all in a row. Hong Kong and Goldman's Deli. You might walk by any of them, but trust me, these places serve great food. Any of them are great lunch choices, with Hong Kong also being an excellent dinner choice.

The sandwiches at Goldman's Deli are amazing. Five of us went out on a snorkeling trip. I ordered 3 sandwiches (ham, turkey, roast beef) to bring in a cooler. We had leftovers. Freshly made, piled high. Not cheap, but very fairly priced for what you get.

When we went to Hong Kong, we were coming back from our snorkeling trip, we were hungry, and a bit tired. We really didn't expect much, judging from the rather spartan appearance and the fairly pedestrian looking menu. Boy, were we wrong. Excellent Chinese food, great portions. The mushu chicken and "house rice noodle" were both wonderful. Nothing fancy, just your typical, reliable, neighborhood Chinese joint.

On Duval Street, right behind the Hog's Breath, is a great little street side hamburger shack: The Conch Shack. They serve some of the best burgers and best hotdogs I've ever eaten, as well as some darn fine conch fritters. Also has awesome hand-cut fries.

On Southard St, just off Duval, is an interesting little lunch place: Frita's Cuban Burgers. Their signature item is a seasoned beef and pork patty served on fresh Cuban bread. Different, but well worth trying. Tasty! Good tacos too.

On Eaton Street, away from pretty much everything, is a find that warmed this old New Englander's heart: Eaton Street Seafood Market. Just a little seafood market, but they also sell ready-to-eat food to go, like crab cakes and lobster rolls. The lobster roll is a traditional Maine lobster roll, complete with New England-style hot dog roll brought in from Providence, RI. No inside tables, but some benches outside that really lend themselves to meeting fellow travelers and seafood fans. The owners also have a great emphasis on all things fresh and local.

2017 UPDATE. Panini, Schamini. I've actually eaten here for a few years now, just forgot to put it in the travelogue. 1075 Duval St. Awesome made-to-order sandwiches, as well as smoothies, and fresh juices to satisfy the cleanest eater in your party. Great food, great folks.

Snacks & nibbles

Boardwalk Frozen Custard. This soft-serve ice cream style treat is incredibly tasty, and really hits the spot right around 2pm. Originally an outpost of Kohr Bros Frozen Custard, it looks like a franchisee may have cut ties with the parent, and continued on their own. 

Another great spot for frozen treats: Gelato on Duval. Wonderful stuff. We had pistachio and Bulgarian cream. Excellent.

Staying with sweets: Key Lime Pie. There is obviously a war going on to claim the title of "best." 

There is Kermit's. Their pie is good, but their frozen, chocolate covered pie-on-a-stick is even better! They also do great Key Lime candies, and an amazing selection of spices, rubs and sauces. Oh, and they have free samples of just about everything!

While Kermit's gets a lot of the attention on the island, for my money, the best basic Key Lime Pie is at Key Lime Pie Bakery (formerly Key Lime Republic, formerly Key Lime Pie Factory) at 412 Greene Street. They also have a great gift shop.

2017 UPDATE. What goes better with Key Lime Pie than coffee? The gang at Cuban Queen Coffee serve up one heck of a cup of java. Can't speak to the food, but the coffee is excellent.

Happy Hour has become something of a big deal on the island. On of the best places to turn a big snack into a meal on the cheap is Alonzo's Oyster Bar. Located under the more upscale Key West icon A&B Lobster House, Alonzo's features an incredible 4pm to 6:30pm Happy Hour where an entire menu page, as well as ALL drinks, are half price. You can seriously make a meal out of this for next to nothing. Great conch fritters.

Dinner

Many of the places I mentioned for lunch make a fine dinner. Here are some places to consider for the evening meal.

2017 UPDATE. One of the greatest compliments I can pay a restaurant is when I go multiple times on one trip. This latest trip found us dining three times at The Waterfront Brewery. Calling it a brewpub is like calling a Lamborghini a car. They brew some amazing beers, including one of the most flavorful "odd" beers ever: Extraterrestrial, which is a Peanut Butter Ale. My non-beer-drinking step mom actually ordered a pint for herself. It sounds strange, but it's delicious. The food is fantastic. Everything fresh, the fish all local caught. When a restaurant can excel at burgers, fried chicken, seared tuna salad, wings, a grilled fish sandwich, and fresh made soft pretzels, you've found a winner. Great gift shop, and a huge game room. Even if beer is not your thing, you need to come here for the food. And, believe it or not, they make a stellar key lime pie. It's a lighter, "whipped" version than the traditional, but it is delicious and the perfect finish to a large meal.

The Conch Republic Seafood Company has a great open-air vibe and serves some excellent food. Good for dinner, or a quick drink, or lunch. One of the best meals I've had here (or anywhere for that matter) was when we brought them our catch from a fishing charter trip. For a fixed $13/person they prepared it three ways (fried/baked/blackened), and served it with rice and veggies. Our fish was no more than 5-6 hours out of the water, and they served it up beautifully.

Located in the very same building that gave birth to Pan-Am airlines, Kelly's Caribbean lets you dine under the trees, enjoy the weather, and their brewed-on-premises beers.  I'm partial to the Southern Clipper Wheat. The Golden Ale is refreshing, and the Havana Red has a nice heft to it. Food wise, Kelly's really shines on pasta. Try the Lobster Ravioli. 2017 UPDATE: After an off meal in 2013, we skipped Kelly's in 2015 due to increasingly negative reviews. We did not go this trip, and frankly, Waterfront poses a serious challenge to Kelly's. Perhaps they will up their game. 

One of the most endearing things about Key West is the fact that you can find great food and drinks in the unlikeliest of places. Case in point: Thai Island. Overlooking the Garrison Bight Marina, you would never believe this place has some stellar Thai & Asian cuisine. Curries, stir-fry dishes, great sushi, and satisfying noodle dishes. Located right near the entrance to the Naval Air Station.

Being from the Northeast, I am very fussy when it comes to Italian food. In 2013, we made a great discovery: The New York Pasta Garden. Sizeable portions, reasonable prices, and wonderfully tasty, fresh food. Sit outside, under the trees, and get to know the resident parrots. 2017 UPDATE. Yet another great meal.

Maybe the best Italian on the island can be found at Mangia Mangia on Southard. All the pasta is made fresh in house, and they have something for everyone, even the gluten-free among you. Trying to go low-carb? Wonderful grilled entrees, and a superlative wine list.

You may have noticed a theme in this travelogue: Get off Duval! That was proven yet again by our inaugural visit to Smokin' Tuna Saloon just off Duval on Charles Street. Live music, great bar atmosphere, and excellent food.

Things To Do

There is so much to do on Key West that if you're not careful, you'll lose track of what a vacation is supposed to be. I'll just be reviewing things that I've done personally. I've already mentioned the Conch Tour Train, back in the Getting Around section. It is a dynamite overview.

2017 UPDATE. In the wake of Hurricane Irma sparing Key West her full wrath, I realized I've been remiss in not pointing out that the Basilica of St. Mary Star of the Sea is a beautiful church to explore. Their grotto lives in legend. Key West has never really taken a direct hurricane hit in the past century. The tale of Sister Gabriel's grotto is one of Key West's best stories. 

The ticketing for the Conch Tour Train is managed by Historic Tours of America. They also handle ticketing for a fair number of the island's other attractions worth going to. In fact, you can save some money with the various packages they offer. I've been to The Truman House, Key West Aquarium, and the Shipwreck Museum. All worthwhile.

The Truman House is a great Presidential museum, filled with fascinating artifacts like Truman's now-you-see-it, now-you-don't Poker Table. The Little White House has been lovingly restored, and the guides are most knowledgeable.

The Key West Aquarium is a small aquarium, the first open-air aquarium in America. It may be small, but you'll learn a ton. Definitely be there for the tours and feedings. The touch tank is delightful. You'll have a chance to pick up marine hermit crabs, horseshoe crabs, conchs and starfish. You'll find sea turtles, sharks, rays, and much more. One of the attractions that we've visited on multiple visits.

The most pleasant surprise we've had from a tourist attraction is the Shipwreck Museum. When you first see it, you'll think "Man, how hokey can you get?" But trust me, this place is fascinating. The little ones will be entertained, and the grownups will learn a great deal about the history of the city that has been both the wealthiest city in America, and the poorest. You'll find out that there's always been a fine line between pirates and legitimate businesses.

Speaking of pirates, we really enjoyed Pat Croce's Pirate Soul Museum. Sadly, Pat's moved the museum 8.5 hours up the road to St. Augustine. Still, check out the link, and if you're in the St. Auguistine area, it's a must.

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed in the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. When we were there (admittedly a few years back), it seemed that the exhibits were in disrepair, and I felt like the main purpose was to get me to buy something from the Atocha find. Perhaps that's changed. Some great diplays of immense historical value, but something just didn't click for me.

The Hemingway Home is really worth the tour. An amazing bit of history, and some amazingly forward-thinking architecture. Another historic home that I did enjoy very much was The Audubon House. Not a house that Audubon actually owned, but rather a place where he spent time as a guest, and did some of his painting. Beautifully restored.

More great Key West history can be found at the Key West Lighthouse Museum. The Key West Arts & Historical Society really makes the old lighthouse come alive.

The Arts & Historical Society also maintains the Fort East Martello Museum & Gardens. This is an excellent thing to do on your way out of Key West. Show up to the airport a bit early, check your luggage, and walk across to the Fort. Just beware of the decidedly creepy doll, Robert.

Do take the time to check out Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Great beach, and the tour of the fort (included in admission) is very informative. Depending on the time of year, you can also find some interesting public art exhibits.

On the way in to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, you'll find the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. This museum, operated by NOAA gives a great overview of ecology of the surrounding area, and best of all, it's free. Closed on Sunday and Monday.

For more active pursuits, there are dozens of opportunities to snorkel, kayak, etc. On our 2010 trip, we hopped the Lower Keys Shuttle up to Marathon Key, and went out snorkeling with Spirit Snorkeling. Captain Dave & First Mate Floyd were fantastic guides, and snorkeling on Sombrero Reef is like swimming in a fishtank. Be sure to make reservations.

A lot of the attractions on Key West try to appeal to the Spring Break/Cruise Ship/Party Hearty crowd. If that's what you're into, go for it. But for me, I was very thankful that Blue Planet Kayak is not that kind of place. Their Eco-tour is relaxed, friendly, and highly informative. Most of the time, you're kayaking in less than 2 feet of water as you explore the mangroves. They'll even pick you up from your hotel. HIGHLY recommended, but call ahead for reservations.

2017 UPDATE. In the same laid back vein as Blue Planet, there's the Key West Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden. Not your typical botanical garden. If you're looking for topiary and the art of the garden, Orlando's a few miles up the road. This is a facility dedicated to the natural environs of Key West. It is accessible by city bus, and well worth the time. Trivia: It is the only frost-free botanical garden in the contiguous 48 states. 

Key West Distilling. Not sure where this really fits, but if you are a fan of vodka, Key West Distilling makes one of the best I've ever had: Spyglass. A true super-premium vodka. It would be a crime to mix this. A truly great libation that stands on its own.

Fishing

Of course, if you're in Key West, there are abundant opportunities to fish. There are so many fishing charters to choose from, it's mind-boggling. I can tell you we have enjoyed all our charters: Fish Check Charters, and Too Lethal. In fact, Too Lethal was the boat we used when we had our great meal at The Conch Republic Seafood Company. Capt. Scott docks near the restaurant. You can get off the boat, hand The Conch Republic your catch, and let 'em know when you'll be back for dinner!

On our 2013 trip, we had one the best times ever with Capt. Ron and Nina of Blue Eyed Trader. Simply put-they are the best on the island. Their reviews on Trip Advisor? 317 reviews as of this writing (May 2, 2017) and every one of them 5 star. No matter your level of experience, you will have a blast. 

Theatre

Key West is a wonderful artist's community, and there is a thriving theatre scene on the island. I've taken in shows at two of the local pro stages. 

The Waterfront Playhouse was dubbed The Best Professional Theatre in Florida by Florida Monthly Magazine two years running. 2015 marked their 75th season. They seat just over 150, but don't let the small size fool you. In 2015, I watched a brilliant staging of Spamalot that was in no way limited by the comparatively small stage. Located right off Mallory Square. 2017 UPDATE: Caught their production of "Good People." Excellent, 

I have a soft spot for small, intimate shows. That's why I adore The Red Barn Theatre. A very intimate 88-seat theatre, where I have seen two exquisitely good character studies: 2013's Time Stands Still, and 2015's Outside Mullingar, written by John Patrick Shanley, the author of Moonstruck, and Doubt. Right behind The Hard Rock Cafe on Duval. Red Barn's been doing amazing things for over 35 years.

If movies are your thing, especially indie and foreign film, check out The Tropic Cinema on Eaton Street. Film buff's delight, with one of the finest concession stands I've ever seen. Run as a non-profit, you can tell the volunteer staff truly has a love affair with film. 

And, at the end of the day, there's, well, the end of the day. The Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square is a certifiable hoot. Vendors, food, street performers (some of whom are VERY good), and basically just a great atmosphere. If you want to get some great photos, I suggest lining up dockside about 25 minutes before sunset to stake your place. Otherwise, wander around, enjoy the sights, and celebrate another day in paradise. If you are there from February thru March, make sure to check out The Red Trouser Show. These guys are awesome.

I guess that's about it. I hope you enjoyed this tropical jaunt as much as I have. Something to add? Something to correct? Shoot me an email.

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