By SARAH WILDMAN
Published: January 6, 2011
KEY WEST, haven to artists and writers, chefs and hippies, is somehow more Caribbean than Floridian. The indie-minded transplants work hard to keep it that way. One-speed bicycles weave their way through colorful village streets, crammed with as many chickens as cars. Happy hour blends into dinner. And everything is oriented around the ocean, from the fish market-driven menus and the nautical-inspired art, to the sunrise worshipers who gather each dawn and the tipplers who wave goodbye at sunset. Be careful or you might just catch what islanders call “Keys disease” — a sudden desire to cut ties with home and move there.
Lemon-ricotta pancakes at Sarabeth’s…mmmmmm
Ideas of what to do while here….can be done in 36 hours….by Sarah Wildman
1) DITCH THE CAR
As any self-respecting bohemian local knows, the best way to get around Key West is on two wheels. Bike rental companies offer drop-off service to many hotels. Two reliable outfits are Eaton Bikes (830 Eaton Street; 305-294-8188; eatonbikes.com) and Re-Cycle (5160 Overseas Highway; U.S. 1; 305-292-3336; recyclekw.com), with rentals for about $18 for one day, $10 for each additional. Orient yourself by biking over to the Truman Annex, a palm-lined oasis of calm made up of two-story whitewashed buildings that surrounds the Little White House (111 Front Street; 305-294-9911; trumanlittlewhitehouse.com).
2) CLEANSE THE PALATE
Key West chefs pride themselves on a culinary philosophy of simple cooking and fresh ingredients. A perfect example is the Flaming Buoy Filet Co. (1100 Packer Street; 305-295-7970; theflamingbuoy.com), a year-old nouveau seafood restaurant owned and run by two Cincinnati transplants, Fred Isch and his partner, Scot Forste. The 10 rustic wood tables are hand-painted in orange and yellow; the lights are low and the crowd amiable, skewing slightly older. This is home-cooking, island style. Favorites include a black bean soup, swirled with Cheddar cheese, sour cream and cilantro ($9), and the fresh catch of the day ($24), which is served with a broccoli cake and tasty mashed potatoes.
Oscar Hidalgo for The New York Times
3) SMALL WORLD
You can’t bike a block on this island without bumping into a would-be Gauguin wielding a palette and paintbrush. There’s an outsize and vibrant arts scene that’s evident at places like Lucky Street Gallery (1130 Duval Street; 305-294-3973; luckystreetgallery.com) and the Gallery on Greene (606 Greene Street; 305-294-1669; galleryongreene.com). For a warm introduction to the scene, head to the Armory, a rifle storage house built in 1903 and recently converted into the Studios of Key West (600 White Street; 305-296-0458; tskw.org), an airy, art-filled space with rotating exhibitions, evening folk concerts, talks by artists-in-residence and drop-in art classes. Expect to find your barista there, and the bike rental guy and the woman who will sell you a T-shirt tomorrow. It’s a small town.
4) MIX IT UP
While Key West night life has long been synonymous with boozy karaoke and mediocre margaritas, new watering holes like the tiny Orchid Bar (1004 Duval Street; 305-296-9915; orchidkeyinn.com) are quietly moving in a more sophisticated direction. Bartenders there take mixology seriously. Try the St.-Germain 75, with Hendrick’s Gin, St.-Germain, fresh lemon juice and Champagne ($12). This Deco-cool sliver of a space overlooks an illuminated pool and draws a mellow crew.
5) SALUTE THE SUN
Every morning, a dozen spiritual seekers — an eclectic mix of tattooed artists, elementary-school teachers and others — assemble at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park for Yoga on the Beach (305-296-7352; yogaonbeach.com). Nancy Curran and Don Bartolone, yogis from Massachusetts, teach energetic vinyasa-style yoga in a clearing of pines, facing the sea. The $18 drop-in fee includes state park entrance fee, muslin dropcloths and yoga mats.
6) A TASTE OF FRANCE
An island of transplants means there is plenty to sample from the world over. Craving France? Stop at Bahama Village’s newest import, La Crêperie Key West (300 Petronia Street; 305-517-6799; lacreperiekeywest.com), where Yolande Findlay and Sylvie Le Nouail, Brittany transplants, serve crepes in an open kitchen. Start with a savory crepe like ratatouille ($10.25), then move on to something sweet like red velvet with dark Belgian chocolate, strawberries and English custard ($9.95).
7) ISLAND STYLE
Just because islanders pride themselves on being casual doesn’t mean they don’t want to look great. Bésame Mucho (315 Petronia Street; 305-294-1928; besamemucho.net) is an old-world general store packed with everything from Belgian linen to Dr. Hauschka skin care, to delicate baubles like tiny beaded pyrite necklaces. Across the street is Wanderlust kw (310 Petronia Street; 305-509-7065; wanderlustkw.com), a boutique that opened in July 2010. It’s stocked with well-priced dresses (a navy blue 1940s-style slip dress with puffed sleeves was a mere $68), and whimsical watercolors of Key West houses by local artists ($15). For swank décor, check out Jan George Interior Design (600 Frances Street; 305-509-8449; jangeorge.com), a furniture shop that carries dreamy stark-white couches from the Italian line Gervasoni. The owners, Jan Oostdyk and his spouse, George Rutgers, landed as tourists from the Netherlands and never left.
8) DRINKS AT SUNSET
Skip the hustle of Mallory Square and work your way through the white tablecloth dining room to Louie’s Backyard Afterdeck Bar (700 Waddell Avenue; 305-294-1061; louiesbackyard.com), which has a large wood-planked patio that faces the ocean and the setting sun. A gregarious crowd of artists and New England snowbirds gathers daily. It’s like an outdoor Cheers.
9) DINING ON DUVAL
Since opening in 2002, the restaurant Nine One Five (915 Duval Street; 305-296-0669; 915duval.com) has gotten high marks for its Asian-inspired seafood and ambience — a large white porch that’s great for people-watching. Last winter, the owner, Stuart Kemp, turned the second floor into the Point5 lounge, serving smaller bites like grilled snapper tacos ($15) and stick-to-your-ribs mac and cheese ($12) to a younger crowd. If you stick around after dinner, Point5 becomes a party, with D.J. George spinning funk and soul and the island’s gay and straight worlds dancing together under filament lights strung outdoors.
10) DRAG SHOW
Drag shows are Key West’s patrimony. Still at the top of his game is Randy Roberts, performing as Bette Midler, Cher and Lady Gaga at La Te Da (1125 Duval Street; 305-296-6706; lateda.com; $26 admission). After the delicious one-hour drag show, hoof it down to Porch (429 Caroline Street No. 2; 305-517-6358; theporchkw.com), a wine and artisanal beer bar that opened in July on the luminous first floor of a Victorian mansion, just off Duval. Chris Schultz, a former travel writer from Minnesota, installed a black banquette, painted the walls a soothing gray and invited an eager crowd of 20- and 30-somethings who moved to Key West to give island life a go.
11) HAIR OF THE DOG
Late night? Sarabeth’s (530 Simonton Street; 305-293-8181; sarabethskeywest.com), housed in what was the island’s first synagogue, serves omelets and tropical juices that are the ideal detox. Can’t be bothered to dress? Bad Boy Burrito (1220 1/2 Simonton; 305-292-2697; badboyburrito.com) will deliver a kobe beef burrito ($8) or fish taco ($9) to you, poolside.
12) SEAWORTHY PURSUITS
With all the shopping and eating, it is easy to forget why you’re really here: to get off the street and onto the water. Lazy Dog (5114 Overseas Highway; 305-295-9898; lazydog.com) offers two- and four-hour kayaking or two-hour paddleboard tours through crystal clear coastal waters and into the deep green waterways of the gnarled mangrove forests. Or if you’re just looking to dip a toe in the sea, bike over to Clarence S. Higgs Memorial Beach, a strip of sand in front of the genial beach bar restaurant Salute! (1000 Atlantic Boulevard; 305-292-1117; saluteonthebeach.com), rent a beach chair for $10, and kick back. You’re on island time, after all.
IF YOU GO
Alexander’s Guest House (1118 Fleming Street; 305-294-9919; alexanderskeywest.com) is a stylish bed-and-breakfast that’s straight-friendly, but attracts a primarily gay and lesbian crowd. The 17 rooms, in a gorgeously refurbished 1901 house, start at $175.
Once used as the base of operations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Casa Marina, a Waldorf Astoria Resort (1500 Ranch Avenue; 88-303-5717; casamarinaresort.com) was radically modernized in 2007 and is now part of the Waldorf-Astoria Collection. The 311 rooms start at $229.