Key WestKey West is an island that is roughly four miles long and two miles wide. Located at the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys, it's actually the southernmost point of the continental United States -- Cuba is just 98 statute miles south. One of the biggest attractions here is a huge painted buoy at the corner of South and Whitehead Streets, which boasts this distinction. Note: This is not the exact southernmost point; that is nearby on a secure piece of land belonging to the US Navy.
History in a NutshellKey West has a long and interesting history. The first inhabitants were the Calusas, a native Indian tribe. They were eventually destroyed by warfare and European diseases. The first European to step foot here was Juan Ponce de León in 1521. Spain gave Florida to the U.S. in 1821 and on March 3, 1845 it became the twenty-seventh state. By 1890, Key West had a population close to 20,000 and was the biggest and richest city in Florida and the wealthiest town per capita in the U.S. Most of the wealth was due to salvaging shipwrecks (check out the Mel Fisher Museum for more). The Navy added a small base at the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and then increased their presence to 3,000 acres during World War II. Other notable dates include: 1912 Henry M. Flagler's Florida East Coast Railway connected the island with the Florida mainland. In 1969 the first cruise ship arrived and now it's a premier port.
When to GoI don't know if there's ever a bad time to visit. For one, Key West has never had a recording of frost or snow since it's so close to the Gulf Stream. The coldest temperature ever registered was 41F in 1981 and the hottest was 97F in 1956. The average low and high temperatures in January are 67F/ 75F. The average low and high temperatures in July are 81F/ 90F. The high season is between November and April when everyone wants to escape the cold north (which also makes it the most expensive) and is the period when the island gets the least amount of rain. May through October is the wet season and hurricane season officially runs from the end of June to the end of November. Fortunately, Key West has been spared from most of the devastating storms but both Wilma (in October, 2005) and Georges (in September, 1998) did some damage.
Getting ThereLast week, I left off from the luxurious Breakers in Palm Beach. From there I drove down to the Fort Lauderdale airport and boarded a US Airways Embraer 170 jet. What's nice about this plane is that it's much larger than the rest of the aircrafts flying into the small Key West airport. This plane holds up to 70 passengers, has plenty of overhead compartment space and is very smooth. The flight time is just 26 minutes and the scenery is surreal. I almost hurt my neck doing a double take glancing out of the window and seeing a hundred or so tiny white sandy islands surrounded by outrageous shades of turquoise blue water. And with the cotton ball clouds and the flow of the current, the view almost looked like a painting. It was definitely one of the nicest views I have ever seen from a plane (see the video below). For those who prefer to drive, the only road to take is US Highway 1, which has 42 bridges. The 160-mile trip from Miami takes just under four hours. And now there's a new ferry service.
High Speed Boat to Key WestThe high-speed Key West Express ferry service just launched a few weeks ago from Key Biscayne (it's adjacent to the Miami Seaquarium). The catamaran accommodates up to 367 passengers, travels 40 mph, has indoor/outdoor decks, six plasma TVs with satellite, a full bar and food service. It takes under four hours and roundtrip tickets cost $98 per adult, $66 per child 12 and under, and $79 for college students and senior citizens. They can be purchased online or at the dock and parking is free. The boat currently operates Thursday to Sunday departing Miami at 8:30am and Key West at 5:30pm making day trips possible. For reservations or more information call 866/KW-Ferry, or visit www.seakeywestexpress.com. FYI: This same ferry company offers Key West service to/from Ft Myers and Marco Island.
Conch RepublicAt the Key West airport, passengers embark and disembark using the plane stairs. As you walk from the tarmac into the airport, a "Welcome to the Conch Republic" sign greets you. I had no idea what that meant but didn't think anything of it until I saw a Conch Republic flag painted on the wall outside of baggage claim. It turns out that the word "Conch" used to refer to someone with European ancestry who had immigrated to the Bahamas. Many of Key West's first residents were immigrants from the Bahamas and today the term "Conch" refers to a native of the Florida Keys. Those who were not born here but have lived for seven or more years, are called "Fresh Water Conch".
Getting to the HotelTaxis are plentiful and offer a flat rate of $7.50 per person to "Old Town" which is where I was staying near. For $1.50 more per passenger, you can hire the Florida Keys Group Transport (tel. 305/296-1800) and one of their drivers will be waiting for you at baggage claim with a name card. For those traveling solo, taxis charge by the meter and the 12-minute ride (without traffic) should cost $15.
Sunset KeyI was fortunate enough to be staying on the secluded 27-acre Sunset Key Island at Mile Marker "0". It's now run by Westin (though it used to be a Hilton) so you can use your Starwood points (12,000 to 16,000 for a free night). Guests check-in at the front desk of the Westin Key West Resort & Marina, which is directly across the street from the Mel Fisher Museum. Porters take your bags and wrap them so they won't get wet on the boat ride over to Sunset Key Island and then deliver them to your room. Sunset Key has three boats stationed in the recently-built marina, where mega cruise ships dock. The free, eight-minute, 500-yard shuttle is available 24 hours and operates every 30 minutes except late at night when guests then need to call for pick-up (sort of like valet parking). You need your room key to board.
The moment I stepped off the boat onto the island I felt like I was on vacation. No wonder it made Condé Nast Traveler's Gold List and Travel + Leisure's 500. The island has 37 one, two, and three bedroom guest cottages and the other half is an exclusive residential community. I walked by a very famous sports owner - I can't say who -- but you get the point. The cottages are built in traditional Key West style and are cute. They all feature a fully-equipped kitchen, living and dining area, free high-speed internet (no wireless though) and CD and DVD players. The interiors are colorful with a Caribbean island feel and since it's a Westin, they all have Westin's signature Heavenly Bed which ensures a good night's sleep. A few small details that make a big impact are the bathroom toiletries that are made by the Key West Aloe company and their coconut shampoo and banana conditioner smell good enough to eat. And who could forget the fresh baked hot muffins delivered to every door in a picnic basket each morning -- my Buddha belly certainly didn't. To wash it down, they stock the fridge with drinks, including complimentary orange juice.
ActivitiesThe island has a soft, white sand beach with cabanas, lounge chairs, and beach attendants but I didn't hang out there except to relax for a few minutes in a hammock. I didn't even play tennis on one of their two courts or swim in the good looking pool or soak in one of the two oversized hot tubs. Why? Because I had never been to Key West and I really wanted to see all the sights. So I spent much of my time in town.
OverallI did eat a few meals at Sunset Key, which was expensive and good -- but the wait service wasn't great. This is the one area the hotel can improve upon but it wasn't a major drawback. Overall, Sunset Key is a great escape especially if you don't want to go far from home or travel internationally. It's a perfect spot for families looking for a relaxing, safe, beach holiday with all of the must-see Key West attractions close by. Room rates start at $495 a night. Sunset Key Cottages, 245 Front Street; tel. 305/292-5300.
Key West AttractionsKey West has a laid-back atmosphere and the folks here are very tolerant. No wonder so many writers, artists, musicians and gays call this place home. But as prices get higher and higher, and Key West gets more and more commercialized (there's now a Banana Republic and Coach store), the locals are slowly beginning to flee. Therefore, if I were you, I would hurry up and come down here before it loses its charm and personality. Don't get me wrong: there are still plenty of mom and pop shops, art galleries, an eclectic range of bars, restaurants, ice cream parlors, Key Lime pie shops and museums. And there will always be plenty to see and do. For starters walk down Duval Street, which I probably don't need to tell you about, since it's the heart and soul of Key West. Its look and feel reminded me of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, including the Go Cups and stores selling party beads.
Tour GuideSharon Wells (tel. 305/294-0566, email@example.com) is a Key West historian, has lived here for 31 years and offers a variety of private Key West tours. She toured me around some of the local museums, which was a great introduction to the island. Her two-hour tour costs $40 per person and a minimum of four people are required.
Museum of Art and HistoryNext door to the Westin is The Custom House which is home to the Key West Museum of Art & History. It was built in 1891 with over 900,000 bricks. It has served as a custom house, post office and courthouse. It was in this building that the U.S. decided to go to war with Spain in 1898 after the sinking of the battleship USS Maine. It recently underwent a 9-year, $9 million restoration, turning this big red brick building into a museum. It devotes an entire section to Ernest Hemingway's life in Key West, including his bloodstained WWI uniform and rotating art exhibits. Open every day from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children (children under 6 are free), $9 for seniors (62+), AAA travelers, and locals with ID. The Key West Museum of Art & History in the Custom House, 281 Front Street, Key West, Florida; tel. 305/295-6616.
Heritage House MuseumThe Heritage House Museum is in a Caribbean colonial-style home with original furnishings belonging to the Porters, a notable Key West family. They collected antiques and sea-faring artifacts which are all on display. The tour ends in a romantic flowering garden where the Robert Frost cottage is located and recordings of his poetry can be heard. They also host poetry festivals, writers' workshops, lectures and cultural events. Hours: 10am to 4pm daily (closed Sunday). Heritage House, 410 Caroline St.; tel. 305/296-3573. $7 guided tour, $5 self-guided.
Hemingway HouseOne of the most popular attractions in Key West is the Ernest Hemingway home and museum. Ernest Hemingway lived in this Spanish colonial-style home here in the heart of Old Town for more than 10 years. The place is usually packed with tourists (and more than 60 cats.) and the best time to tour is as soon as they open, before the cruise ship passengers invade the place. They have free, 30-minute tours through his old rooms and gardens showing you so much, including a 1934 penny that Hemingway pushed into the wet cement where his pool was being built and announced jokingly, "Here, take the last penny I've got." because it cost $20,000 to build. Open daily from 9am to 5pm. Admission is $11. Hemingway Home, 907 Whitehead St.; tel. 305/294-1575.
Key West LighthouseAcross the street from Hemingway's house is the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper's Quarters Museum. Built in 1847, the tower is 86 feet tall and has an 88-step circular iron stairway to the observation deck. The views from the top are spectacular. In 1998, the lighthouse became a National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Open daily from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children (children under 6 are free) and students with ID, $9 for Seniors (62+), AAA travelers and locals with ID. The Key West Lighthouse and Keeper's Quarters Museum, 938 Whitehead Street, Key West, Florida; tel. 305/295-6616 ext. 16.
Little White HouseOf all the museums I visited, my favorite was The Harry S. Truman Little White House. It was built in 1890 as the first officer's quarters on the naval station. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was converted into a single family home and Thomas Edison lived here during World War I, while developing weapons for the Navy. It became very famous in 1946 when Harry Truman began visiting Key West for vacation and then returned 10 more times during his presidency (he spent a total of 175 days). He turned this place into a Little White House. Six presidents have visited here including John Kennedy; the last was Bill Clinton. Today it's mostly used as a museum but the last significant role it had was in April, 2001, when Secretary of State Colin Powell led a week of international peace talks between the Presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan here. I loved seeing the 1950s furniture and all the Christmas cards the White House has sent out each year. Entrance fee is $11. Little White House, 111 Front St.; tel. 305/294-9911.
Dining and DrinkingAs you can imagine, Key West offers lots of food and restaurant options for all budgets, including their most popular restaurants, Hard Rock Café, Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville and Cheeseburger In Paradise. However, my two favorite places to eat were: Blue Heaven and Pisces. Blue Heaven embodies Key West's artsy, kick-back attitude. The backyard dining area is filled with colorful, hand-painted picnic tables and chickens running around. I had the Jamaican Jerk Chicken plate with brown rice, black beans, vegetables and corn bread; it was good but their key lime pie was awesome. Blue Heaven Restaurant, 729 Thomas St.; tel. 305/296-8666.
Pisces used to be a French restaurant called Café Des Artistes. But in 2002, the chef decided to remodel the 1892 building -- by putting up colorful prints including original signed prints of Andy Warhol's artwork and changing the name. Their signature dish for over 15 years (and award-winning, too.) is the Lobster Tango Mango Â? it's delicious. Other tasty dishes are the Yellowtail Atocha, Raspberry Duck and Filet Mignon. Pisces, 1007 Simonton Street; tel. 305/294-7100. Want to escape the Spring Break party atmosphere? Then head to Virgilio's Martini bar. It's got great, live Cuban music and is filled mostly with locals all over the age of 30. The entrance is on a side street just off of Duval Street. Virgilio's, 524 Duval St; tel. 305/296-8118.
Water SportsIn Key West, there are tons of water sport options. From snorkeling, diving and parasailing to windsurfing, boating and fishing. You name it. I spent a couple hours going up to 65/mph on a Sea Doo. You probably know it as a Jet Ski but please don't call these mini boats a Jet Ski. I grew up on a Jet Ski, which is how I got my nickname Johnny Jet (I used to be known as Johnny JetSki but when I upgraded my mode of transportation I dropped the "ski"). Island Water Sports & Sea Doo Rentals (245 Front Street, tel. 305/296-1754) offer a variety of options. I went on a Sea Doo Island tour, which takes between 1-1/2 to 2 hours. You travel 26 miles, which takes you through both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Don't worry about getting hurt because they're really serious about safety and they require each Sea Doo to stay about 300 feet apart from each other (except when the group convenes at designated points along the way for a brief description of the area, by the tour guide). If you are in the back you might feel lonely. It costs $125 per person and if you want to add a passenger to your backseat, it's just $10 more. This activity is for people 18 and over. Be sure to bring your ID and credit card -- you're required to give a $300 deposit.
Note: This trip was sponsored by Ocean Properties.
John E. DiScala (aka Johnny Jet), is the founder of www.johnnyjet.com, the ultimate travel website and weekly newsletter. He logs over 150,000 miles a year, has been featured in over 850 articles (including Frommers.com, USA Today, Time, Fortune, the New York Times, CNBC and MSNBC), and has published the book, You Are Here Traveling With JohnnyJet.com.
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