Key West is the most southern point of Florida, as well as the lower 48 states. South West Florida combines tropical surroundings, plenty of island get-a-ways and near perfect weather. These paradise trades are what attracts vacation goers and snow birds alike. When driving to the keys, you feel and smell the warm ocean air blowing all around you as you gaze over the beautiful turquoise Gulf waters.
As you get closer to downtown Key West, you will understand the local’s ongoing joke, “Why did the chicken cross the street?” When early settlers came to the keys, they brought along their feathered friend for a source of food. The chickens have grown to be more of an attraction than a meal. They have full reign of the city and have become sort of an Icon to the Conch Republic. They make their dignified presence known by showing up in the local shops and bars. You will never really need an alarm clock in Key West. The roosters always let you now when the sun starts to peek over the horizon.
Most of Key West’s downtown streets are two lanes and are lined with historic Spanish style buildings that blend with the open-air shops, bars and restaurants. The streets don’t start bustling with life until around midday. Walking around downtown at 8 o’clock in the morning doesn’t look anything like the pedestrian filled thoroughfare you will see during late day or evening afterhours. The mornings are crisp, cool and feel so alone without its two-legged sidewalk dwellers inhabiting its presence. This is actually a perfect time to cruise the streets and do some window shopping or schedule your day’s activities. There are very few places to eat breakfast on Duval Street (Key West’s main street). But if you venture down one of the many side streets, you will find several Cafes that serve an excellent breakfast.
The first thing I would suggest to do when you find your way into downtown Key West is to take the Conch Train tour. The main station is on the corner of Front & Whitehead Streets. It takes you all around the city explaining its wonderful sights and turbulent history. Once you know a little more about Key West, you will understand its reasons for it’s bizarre customs and odd traditions. Now that you are enlightened about your surroundings, you can start enjoying yourself in this world renowned tourist destination.
There are so many places you can shop, dine and saturate your thirst with cool and exotic beverages. The Board walk is a great place to start your day’s adventure. It has plenty of eateries, bars, shops and tours that offer sunset cruises and snorkeling trips. There is a musuem at the end of a dock that provides the history of the Dry Tortugas’s Fort Jefferson. There is lots of marine life to witness around the boardwalk’s pillars. The water’s transparency allows for some exciting aquatic viewing. A lot of the tourist strolling along the docks don’t get many opportunities to see marine life firsthand.
This particular manatee was one of many that followed us along the boardwalk. Its lumbering movement made it easy to study its aquatic behavior. Florida’s manatee population is making a miraculous comeback from near extinction.
A popular Florida game fish is the Tarpon. These powerful, silver in color brut of a fish will put on an acrobatic display when you hook one. They are notorious for leaping out of the water and dislodging a hook from its month with a powerful shake of its torso and wiping head motion. Tarpons have been recorded to reach up to 8 feet in length and weighing in at over 350 pounds.
Besides all the action going on under and around the docks, there is also a lot to see on the glittering turquoise surface. The variety of sailing vessels make a luxury car lot look rather boring. Day boats, cabin cruisers, catamarans and sailboats of all sizes gives you the urge to set sail right then and there.
There are plenty of day tours to choose from such as sunset cruises, dolphin watching, snorkeling and scuba trips. You can also reserve a catamaran for special occasions like weddings or family reunions.
After spending the afternoon on the docks, you might want to wander back into town and take in some of the local action. We took the Key West first Legal Rum Distillery tour. The tour started with a tasting of several home brewed rums. Chef Menta, who has a masters degree in distillery and culinary arts, guided us through the small plant and explained the delicate, but sofisticated process on how to brew a quality rum. Chef Menta is very knowledgeable about his trade and will answer any questions you might have.
You actually get to walk around his studio and see the brewing process in real time. The rum he creates is so velvety smooth and full of flavor that you will want to buy a bottle or three to take home and enjoy on special occasions. Its that good.
We spent a couple of hours doing the sightseeing and touristy things. It then became time to visit some of the bars and grills that occupy Duval’s curbsides. There is the world famous Sloppy Joes. The Iconic cantina was established in 1933 and was frequently visited by Ernest Hemmingway and the notorious rum runner Habana Joe. We stopped in at the smallest bar in Key West. Yes, it was a bit crowded, but the patrons were having lots of fun. From there we visited the Island Dogs Bar. It was probably one of our favorite stops. I want to give a quick shout out to Ben. He is a great bartender with a fantastic personality! And what would a trip to Key West be without stopping at the Hogs Breath Salon? Hogs Breath is one of the favorite watering holes of the locals. Tourist love it because it gives them a sense of being part of the local scene. This is a must visit, if nothing else but to say that you’ve been there when you spot one of the many T-shirts they have sold.
Our next stop is Mallory Square. Mallory Square is the ideal place to watch the sunset when visiting Key West. It offers a picturesque vantage point that overlooks the pristine Caribbean waters. Mallory Square’s plaza sits on the west side where Front and Duval Streets intersect. It offers such attractions as the Key West Shipwreck Museum (pictured left) and the Customshouse (pictured lower right). The Shipwreck Museum has artifacts that date back as far as 400 years. It displays some of the findings of the shipwreck Isaac Allerton, which sank in 1856 on the Key’s ridged reef with its hulls filled with some of the richest treasures ever found in these areas. The wrecker tycoon Asa Tift constructed the warehouse in the 19th-century to house some of his famous recoveries. The Customshouse gives a glimpse into some of Key West’s famous personalities and Maritime history. The building use to be home to The United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The local Post Office was also housed in the same building.
Mallory Square’s plaza includes local vendors displaying their crafts in their wagon styled shops and walk-up food stands. Its maritime ambience leads you through a paver walkway that is tunneled with overhanging shade trees. We proceeded towards the water and out onto the square’s open platform. Here is where the Sunset Celebration has become a tourist favorite. Every late afternoon the calmness of the square starts to gather momentum as the sun gets closer to the bluish horizon. The street entertainers start to outline their perimeters with props that range from hoops, ladders and matts to chains and racks of sharp objects. They run, jump, twist and practice their talents in front of thousands of spectators. The crowds start to focus their attention to the western horizon as the sun starts to meet its day’s end. You need to have your camera, cell phone or video recorder ready for a spectacular sight. The pictures below are only samples of mother natures ending to a fantastic day in paradise.
Many memories have been created and archived during a Key West sunset.
Watching the sunset from Mallory Square is a daily ritual. The Iconic tradition dates back as far as the 1960’s. Tourist from all over the world come to Key West to experience this amazing sight. Key West is a destination where all languages, cultures and customs come together. They all have one thing in common and that is to find peace and tranquility in a place that is considered one of the world’s most sought after paradises.
There are a few more thing you need to know when visiting Key West. Don’t feed the wildlife and don’t eat the flowers. They both could have minor effects to your health! If you don’t have the Florida keys on your bucket list, I hope my article has convinced you to add this once in a lifetime adventure to it.
Author: Anthony Scopel
Photographs: Anthony & Maureen Scopel
A special thanks to Debra for being our chauffeur!