Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Florida Travelogue - Key West *Updated*

Summer's the time to travel.  Unfortunately for Central Floridians, summer means running from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car to your air-conditioned office, dodging afternoon thunderstorms along the way.  Some might be lucky enough to escape to cooler places, but for those stuck here, remember: just because it's stiflingly hot doesn't mean you can't enjoy all the summer fun Florida has to offer.

One of the best times to explore Florida - especially South Florida - is during the hot summer.  For residents of Central Florida, it's nice to escape the massive amounts of tourists that are in the area when school's out and shuttle launches are happening.  Also, there's a drought of events between after 4th of July until about September, so you won't be missing much.

What does summer mean for South Florida?  Less people, and smaller prices.  Beaches are less crowded and almost all hotels down south have cheaper rates.  Best of all, there are always things to do and see for very little money or free.  On to our first destination.

Key West

There's a lot to be said about Key West, the Bone Island.  It has a history that only a Floridian city could have: pirates and thieves, Spaniards and English, war and trade, treasures and ghost stories.  It's known for its famous visitors and residents, including Tennessee Williams, Jimmy Buffett, President Truman and his Little White House, and Ernest Hemingway, whose residence you can visit.  Of course, it's also the southernmost point in the continental United States, just 90 miles from Cuba.  But enough about history.  Let's get there fast so we can take it slow.

Where to Stay

Key West sees a wide variety of tourists and its accommodations reflect that.  You can find something for every price range and style.  Most popular are probably the traditional bed and breakfasts.  These attract mid- to high-end travelers, generally older.  (Some will even state on the website not to bring children and no partying allowed.)  Then there are Hotels and Motels of every type, both name-brand and independent.

If you plan on staying out most of the day, partying all night, and just need a safe place to crash and relax, then the  Spindrift Motel (1212 Simonton St) is for you.  The price is unbeatable for Old Town Key West.  While nothing fancy, the rooms are spacious and clean, and the pool area was nice.  Breakfast is not included (only coffee), but there is free parking (which can be hard to find in Key West), it's minutes from South Beach and restaurants, and only a 15 minute walk from all the museums and Duval Street.  Call 305-296-3432 for rates and reservations.

On my past trip to Key West I had the pleasure of staying at the Angelina Guest House (302 Angela St).  The location is great: just minutes on foot to parks, beaches, Duval Street, museums, restaurants, and shops.  Beautiful pool area where you can also enjoy the included breakfast buffet.  If you don't mind sharing bathrooms hostel-style, private rooms with full-sized beds for two are the best deal at as cheap as $74/night.  En suite rooms are very reasonable as well.  Call 305-294-4480 or visit the site for rates and reservations.

Where to Eat

Like most touristy places, restaurants in Key West charge a little more than your average joint.  But just like with Key West's hotels, there's something for everyone's budget.  You can also find something for everyone's taste.  Typical American is most popular, with lots of fresh seafood and tropical influences.  All of the following locations have breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but some of the highlights were:

Breakfast:  Right next to the Spindrift Motel, and not too far from Angelina Guest House, is Camille's Restaurant (1202 Simonton St).  The food is good, the staff is friendly, and the decorations are quirky.  The prices are a little more than at your average breakfast place, but I definitely enjoyed my french toast with mango and coconut for about $9.  More traditional breakfast foods are also on the menu.  Judging by the bar set up, Camille's is fun at night, too.

Lunch: A great place for lunch is the Southernmost Beach Cafe (1405 Duval St).  It's right on South Beach, with views of the ocean weather you sit at the bar or in the breezy open-air restaurant.  In addition to island favorites like coconut shrimp and conch fritters (both $8.95), the hamburgers and salads are very good.  I had the Fresh Catch Salad ($11.95) with crispy blackened fish, mango, pecans, and Caribbean vinaigrette dressing.  It may be the best salad I've ever had.  Dinner can get expensive, but was well worth it.

Dinner: Duval Street is the place to be at night.  However, a big dinner can get pricey.  That's where Sweet Pea's (1114 Duval St) surprises.  It must be newer, because I can't find it online.  The decor is nice and the service is friendly.  The classic American meals and island favorites are good.  Portions are big and generally less than $10. The coconut shrimp is very good, as is the fish and macaroni and cheese.

What to Do and See

There's so much to see and do in Key West that this post can't do it justice, so I'll keep it brief.  I've already mentioned two popular sites, the Little White House and the Hemingway house.  There are also numerous other museums (a great way to avoid the early afternoon heat).  Most of these deal with local history and historic houses, and aren't too expensive.   For a really good picture, visit the Key West Lighthouse (938 Whitehead St), built in 1847.

Key West is a great place to explore nature.  Tours and excursions can be pricey, but well worth it - especially if you like water sports.  Sunsets are a big deal here.  If a sunset dinner cruise isn't in your budget, be sure to walk over to Mallory Square (at the north end of Duval Street) for one of the best places to see the sun set.  Surprisinlgy, Key West isn't well-known for its beaches.  However, visit Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park for the best beach experience.

One thing you can't miss on your Key West stay is a visit to Sloppy Joe's (201 Duval Street).  The bar has seen its fair share of famous faces and is the highlight of Key West nightlife.  With live entertainment and drinks almost around the clock, there's never a dull moment.  The rest of Duval Street (the blue line on the map) comes alive at night.

Getting Around

You can fly into Key West, although driving through the Keys from Miami (especially over the Seven Mile Bridge) is quite interesting.  Unless your hotel has parking, it can be a hassle to find as spot.  When I find a good spot, I leave my car there the whole time.  Once you arrive, it's very easy to walk all over the small island.  But since it's so hot most of the year, bicycles and motor scooters  are very popular.  Although the streets can get busy, biking around on side streets is a great way to explore Key West.  Drivers are more respectful of cyclists here than anywhere else I've ridden in Florida, and bike racks are abundant.  The Angelina Guest House rents them for $10 the first day and $8/day after that, or check out the bike shops all over town. 


In all honesty, I was a little disappointed my first time in Key West.  After an extra-long drive due to traffic, I found it touristy and loud -- not the island retreat I had in mind.  But after watching the sunset and having a couple drinks at Sloppy Joe's, listening to the musicians and watching people enjoying themselves, the mood gets you.  You can't help but notice middle-aged, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing parents walking around the streets drunk and giggly.  Or the chickens strolling around the streets for no good reason.  And you can tell that even the locals haven't tired of their surroundings.  And that's when it hits you: Key West isn't about expectations, it's about escaping the day-to-day, slowing down, and relaxing.  So find your favorite drinking spot, discover a new water sport, or just unwind in a rocking chair.

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