by Elizabeth Player (A runner-up entry in the inaugural Travel Writing Competition)
Returning to Key West in Florida after more than thirty years was a daunting prospect. Back in the seventies when the phrase ‘gap year’ hadn’t even been invented, I’d spent a few glorious months in that magical paradise.
I’d been told by more than one person that Key West had changed beyond recognition and therefore approached my trip with some trepidation as I headed south towards the Seven Mile Bridge, the roadway connecting all the small islands that make up the Florida Keys.
Look on the map and you will see that the Keys run like a string of pearls all the way down to the most southerly point of the USA… Key West being the final island.
Approaching the town, I hardly recognised anything; there were so many hotels. As I sat in heavy traffic, my heart sank as I watched the antics of hordes of tourists, milling in and out shopping malls and high rise hotels. But, as we approached the Old Town, that unmistakable ‘laid back’ holiday vibe began to welcome me in.
I’d pre-booked my accommodation at the Chelsea House Hotel, centrally located in the Old Town area of Key West, costing $80 per night, which I thought very reasonable with a perfectly adequate continental breakfast included in the price.
The choice of ‘things to do’ in Key West is overwhelming; there is something for everyone. Charter boat fishing, diving, snorkelling, aerial tours and sailing are just a few of the many activities on offer or you can just go to the beach and chill.
I joined a narrated walk through the Old Town Quarter of Key West, taking in the most interesting landmarks and historical spots, including Ernest Hemingway’s house, where the great writer lived for a couple of years. Not my favourite author but a major influence on 20th century American literature and the house is well worth a visit.
Strolling through the streets, admiring the old colonial houses, maintained in pristine condition with their wide front porches and Spanish moss hanging from the balconies, gave me a real pang of nostalgia. The Old Town is extremely popular and a big hit with tourists.
Key West has a large Cuban community, grown up over the past fifty years, and it continues to add a vibrant Latino flavour to this already colourful town. From Key West to Miami Cubans have made this area their home, evident by the many Cuban restaurants and shops thriving in Key West. It would appear that the United States, while not encouraging illegal immigrants, doesn’t make too much fuss if people are employed and paying taxes. How that works I’m not too sure.
The little hop-on train that beetles through the Old Town is a must, particularly if you’re visiting mid summer; it can get very hot so I thoroughly enjoyed my sit down sight-seeing tour.
Back on my first visit Key West struck me as the US counterpart of St Ives, Cornwall. Both were known for their natural beauty, colourful artists and musicians and most of all they were both huge hippy hang outs. These days in Key West you will still find that relaxed, hippy atmosphere but there’s a strong possibility that the loud ringing of cash registers will be drowning out any calls for peace and love and support for the diminishing whale population.
Duval Street, is still the hub of the town, buzzing with music, restaurants and night life. The most famous bar in the Keys, probably the whole State, is ‘Sloppy Joe’s’ and remains as busy as it ever was. They still serve beer by the pitcher and of course the famous ‘Sloppy Joe’ sandwich; that’s a big white bap, filled with ground beef in a spicy gravy and is quite delicious. ‘It made us and Key West Famous’ their famous strap-line still adorns billboards around town. The building and the spit and sawdust bar room remain much the same, possibly with a few refinements.
Locally caught fish is a must. Crab, lobster and shrimp are to die for and you can’t go wrong ordering a fish platter, providing an impressive selection of expertly fried and grilled local fish. Gorgeous!
There are some fantastic dinner cruises on offer, lasting two hours and costing around $60 each; perfect for a romantic evening. A trip to the ‘The Quay’ as the sun sets is not to be missed and the long held tradition of applauding the setting sun still holds. It started because the locals believed the fantastic spectacle of the sunsets in Key West deserved recognition. As the sun dipped into the horizon I, along with a fairly large crowd, clapped and cheered. Crazy but fun and oddly enough very apt.
Key West is without doubt more commercial and the market stalls that used to line the dock down on the Quay selling simple, handmade goods have turned into chic little shops selling jewellery, carved ornaments and all the honest to goodness stuff tourists love to buy. I guess that’s progress.
There were as many American visitors in Key West as foreigners like myself. It is considered a cool, holiday destination and a great place for everyone; the young and young at heart will be assured a fabulous time and I for one definitely won’t be waiting so long before I make a return visit.
See also: Florida – Touring Holiday