Normally, I’m not big on cocktails before 10am. But when we blearily wandered in at 8am to the Blue Heaven, one of Key West’s signature restaurants, that’s what our server suggested. Sitting in the crazy-quilt courtyard, with its rustic artwork and scurrying chickens, looking up at the former bordello on the second-floor, and knocking back some booze seemed in keeping with all things Keys. I opted for the pancakes, which I found just as intoxicating.
But I need to back up. The Keys have long been on my “must” list, from seeing maps of their skipping-stone procession of islets bouncing towards the Caribbean, knowing they were a popular 19-century pirate stopover, where Papa Hemingway partied with gusto, passing his cup to Jimmy Buffett, and where Bogart and Bacall faced their own wild winds (though most of Key Largo was filmed on a Hollywood stage set). No matter: myths and legends are as much part of the Keys as tropical breezes and aquamarine waters.
On a tight pre-Christmas schedule, we didn’t make it into Key Largo, the first and longest Key, until afternoon. It’s heralded for the colorful corals and rich marine life of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater park in the United States. Despite Pennekamp’s 500 species of fish, we were more interested in fish on a plate, so we headed to Snapper’s, a waterfront restaurant with three lively bars, one a tiki-torcher outside. We took the easy route of sitting at an inner bar, where a large fish-flitting aquarium took us as close to the coral reef park as we would get. Snapper’s serves mean sushi-grade tuna nachos, glowing Manhattans, and a fin-tastic selection of fish entrees, all dished with smiling gusto.
Speaking of bars, the Caribbean Club in Key Largo was one of the few actual Keys sites that made it into the Bogart film, but if you have a historical hankering for Humphrey, you can just mosey on down to the Marina Del Mar and book a canal cruise on the original African Queen, the tugboat immortalized in the Bogart/Hepburn film of the same name, now restored to sea-serviceable shape.
We strolled to the active waterfront where the boat was moored to give Bogey his due, then headed to the Stoneledge Paradise Inn, a palm-fronted coral-colored series of small rooms backed up to Florida Bay. You can arrange many water-bound activities from the hotel, but we were happy enough with the shower’s water. “Paradise” might be a lofty claim, but the inn is inexpensive and clean, with a funky charm.
“Funky charm” is a shortcut phrase to describe much of the Keys, even if it’s lost some of its edgy-outlier appeal to development and time. However, there’s still eccentricity aplenty (and a pirate or two), as a wide-eyed drive from Key Largo to Key West will inform you. But you need fuel for any eccentric drive, so morning found us carbo-loading at Harriet’s, an old-time diner that lives up to the promise of its “Hi, honey” name.
Harriet’s is the kind of place that would—and did—have Christmas stockings with all the waitresses’ names (and yes, there is a Harriet) bulging with little gifts hanging on the wall. Their key lime muffin is said to be the thing, but we split a flaky breakfast biscuit as big as a boat, and a Spanish omelet. Friendly, funky and yes, charming.
There are well over 1500 islands in the archipelago, but only 43 of them are connected by the marvel that is the Overseas Highway, which water-walks its way through the Keys. Traffic can be dicey during touristy times of the year, and if weather is a’brewin’; a massive hurricane in 1935 knocked out what was the Overseas Railway and mandated the highway build. But when the winds are just warm kisses, as was the case on our trip, driving the Highway is an unfettered windows-down pleasure, buoyed by the blues of the Florida Bay on one side and the Atlantic on the other.
We bridged our way through the Upper Keys toward the Middle, digging the colorful houses on unprotected points, the rustic trailer courts, the quirky signs and crazy statues that marked many towns. The antennae of Islamorada’s giant lobster pulled us in to check out the studios of its Rain Barrel Artisan’s Village. Lots of unusual sculptures and crafts there, followed by fishy friends up close (Feed the Tarpons!) at Robbie’s Marina, which has an art yard of its own.
We were drawn through the Lower Keys by the Key West magnet, arriving at our neon-pink trimmed Caribbean House lodging in the early afternoon. The small hotel has neat, colorful rooms, a genial French owner, and a dandy complimentary coffee/espresso maker on the patio. It’s just three shakes of a martini off of Duval Street, the pulsing heart of town. First we strolled over to Hemingway House, but Papa’s party there was just too big to wait out the lines. So we made our way over to the marker for the Southernmost point in the U.S., where folks were milling, many carrying coconut drinks in the shell.
Wandering the streets of Key West reminded me of New Orleans, with beautiful old buildings, too many to photograph, many with ornate balustrades and balconies spilling bougainvillea, and remarkable orchids and banyan trees. We made our way over to Mallory Square, an assemblage of shops, restaurants and historic buildings just off the water for the Sunset Celebration. There, fire-eaters, jugglers, mimes and more ply their trade among the churning tourist crowd. Later, what better place to moisten your fire-eaten lips than taking a tipple at the Green Parrot, the oldest bar in Key West, where the walls are a fricassee of memorabilia, faded posters and kooky signs. The encircling old wood bar hosted a mix of tourists and locals, equally enlightened by the spirit, distilled and otherwise.
Appetite whetted, we walked the lively streets to Seven Fish, where the personable bartender gave us complimentary small pours from their tempting wine list. Seven Fish is a contemporary bistro that knows its way around a crab cake. And a snapper curry too. We walked back to our hotel illuminated by soft neon and fabulous food. You’d think that next morning’s wake-up wouldn’t trigger the appestat so quickly, but that’s why we were in the originally mentioned Blue Heaven, right at the opening bell. Those pancakes: banana-pecan, the best I’ve ever had.
Great cakes fueled a quick walk to the free Eco-Discovery Center, a NOAA-administered facility informing the public on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Filled with beautiful educational exhibits on the ecology of the Keys, there’s a giant living reef tank with gleaming corals and candy-colored tropical fish that can cure any Duval Street after-effect.
We had to flee Key West to make a plane, but not before we woke the dead. The Key West Cemetery is fascinating, and not simply because many of the tombs are above ground (and some stacked on each other). That’s because an 1847 hurricane surfaced many of these permanent sleepers, who had to be moved to higher ground. You’ll find many a striking angel or tall tower marker, but the best ones show the quirky Key Westian humor: “I told you I was sick.”
Our hours in the Keys were all too short, but we were there long enough to feel its “not in Kansas” eccentric vibe of humor, tolerance and openness. We’ll be back.
If You Go
Lodging: Stoneledge Paradise Inn, 95320 Overseas Highway, Key Largo, FL 33037; (305) 852-8114, www.stoneledgeparadiseinn.com. No-frills rooms but genial setting. Swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving and more from hotel site. King beds from $88.
Caribbean House Key West, 226 Petronia Street, Key West, FL 33040 (305) 296-0999, www.caribbeanhousekw.com. Small though colorful guestrooms under care of English-, French- and Spanish-speaking landlords. Two blocks from Duval Street, and walking distance from many major Key West attractions. Queen beds from $89.
Dining: Snappers, 139 Seaside Ave., Key Largo, FL 33037, (305) 852-5956, www.snapperskeylargo.com. Waterside tiki bar, friendly atmosphere, occasional live music, eclectic selection of fish dishes. Entrees from $22–$29.
Good Food Conspiracy, 30150 Overseas Highway, Big Pine Key, FL 33043, (305) 872-3945, www.goodfoodconspiracy.com. Healthy and savory organic/veggie/juice bar lunch stop with a bit of a California feel. Outdoor patio, great veggie wraps; soups and organic coffee. Wraps run about $7.25–$11.
Blue Heaven Restaurant, 729 Thomas St. Key West, FL 33040, (305) 296-8666, www.blueheavenkw.com. Around the corner from Caribbean House. Large open courtyard and outdoor bar filled with colorful artwork and quirky decor. Great breakfasts. Dinner entrees (with a nod to the Caribbean) from $19–$37.
Seven Fish, 632 Olivia Street, Key West, FL 33040, (305) 296-2777, www.7fish.com. Small, intimate and friendly restaurant that pays attention to dining details; imaginative and flavorful fish dishes, just a nice stroll from Duval Street.
Entrees from $17–$29.
More Info: Florida Keys Tourism Development Council, (800) 352-5397, www.fla-keys.com.