The Custom’s man at Miami airport was in the midst of his explanation.
“If you’re not caught for time, the best way to get to Key West is driving — but, then again, if you’re heading to that particular place, time probably ain’t a big consideration to you.”
Slipping into our rental car — a fully loaded drop-top Ford Mustang — we settled into cruise control heading out toward U.S. 1, a piece of architectural magic that did much to fashion our ‘changes in latitude, changes in attitude’, as the local song goes.
A massive 90-mile span that joins the American mainland to the dozens of inhabited islands that make up the Florida Keys, this stunning drive out into the wide, blue aquatic yonder slowly clears the mind of all things urban as you head ever closer to the tropics and the scents of the Caribbean.
Leaving behind the garish advertising billboards, burger stands, shopping centres and trailer courts, nature takes over the senses as exotic plants like Jamaican dogwood, pigeon plum and mighty banyan trees dot the horizon.
Designated a natural sanctuary of marine wildlife in 1990 by a state council keen to preserve the unique nature of the Keys from the over-population and urban-blitz that has destroyed so many other areas of Florida, its non-polluted air and complete lack of high-rise living makes for the perfect habitat of endangered species like the great white heron, mangrove cuckoo, roseate spoonbill, and white crowned pigeon.
And yet, if Key West is about the preservation of anything, it’s the particular state of mind that most grabs the first-time visitor. A curious confluence of history and sophistication mixed with literature and laid-back living — this is a town high on charm and low on attitude.
Since the days when authors like Hemingway and Tennessee Williams set up camp here to write famous tomes like The Old Man And The Sea and A Streetcar Named Desire between bouts of serious drinking, it has always proven a potent magnet for people looking to drift away from the real world for awhile.
With those ‘Welcome to Paradise’ signs dotting every corner and a local ethos that says ‘anything goes as long as you don’t frighten the horses,’ its reputation as the ultimate drop-out destination still ranks high with a certain type of traveller intent on finding sun, sand and a whole lotta living after the sun goes down.
With a native population of around 20,000, locals complain of constantly rising rents and the exorbitant cost of buying a house, but they’re still happy to make a buck from the endless train of sunseekers and cruise line tourists that make tourism the number 1 money-spinner.
With Cuba only 90 miles across the water, the conservatism of America seems very far away in an atmosphere where signs on restaurant doors read: ‘Bikini Bottoms Optional’.
Legendary saloons like Sloppy Joe’s, the Schooner Wharf, Captain Tony’s and Margaritaville — the latter owned by balladeer Jimmy Buffett whose song of the same name has become the unofficial Key West anthem — provide the night-time entertainment in a place where it’s the height of bad manners to go home before 4am.
While tacky Duvall Street and its dozens of all-night bars, t-shirt shops and art galleries make up the central point of the town, the real Key West is found by wandering the numerous side-streets and back-lanes that make up the Old Town.
Hiring a conch cruiser — a low-slung bicycle perfect for idling along —a trip along traffic-less streets like Southard, Amelia and Petronia brings one into a bygone world of wooden houses with wrought-iron balconies, old cigar factories that made up the main industry 100 years ago, massive banyan trees whose limbs tower across the roadway, and everywhere the sounds of crickets mixing with the sizzle of backyard barbecues.
Scuba and fishing are the main occupations for those seeking a more energetic day than catching the 80 degree rays on the excellent Smather’s Beach and Fort Zachary Taylor Park. With underwater visibility up to 120 feet, the colours of the coral reefs are only surpassed by the brilliance of the fish life that live around it.
With sea canyons, historic shipwrecks and sunken submarines, it’s easy to stay down for hours on end. The African Queen, the original vessel from director John Huston’s classic 1951 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, is another nautical entertainment that sits nicely with the whole ‘salty sea dog’ vibe found all over the town.
Bogart, who played the gruff and well named Captain Allnut, won the Best Actor Oscar for his role, while Hepburn as British Methodist missionary, Rose Sayer, got a Best Actress nomination. The film is considered one of the best two-hander stories ever made, with both stars appearing in every scene.
Built in 1912, the 30-foot boat that was the real star of the film has now been refurbished as another unusual tourist attraction.
Manned by the affable and informative Captain Dave, this classic vessel now traverses the canals and shoreline of Key West, offering hidden gems and scenic vistas unavailable to the ordinary landlubber.
As the steam engine chugs along with its ageless rhythm, we were treated to tales of how the movie was made, the all-night drinking sessions between Huston and Bogart, and how Hepburn was just as feisty in real life as she was on screen.
Talk nicely to Cap’n Dave and he’ll even let you steer the old girl. Everyone has personality in Key West, even the dead. The 15-acre City Cemetery located appropriately enough beside Poorhouse Lane dates back to 1847 and is itself another tourist attraction.
Filled with ornate tombs, artistic mausoleums and simple crosses to Cubans who died in the 1868 revolution, it provides the ideal place to stroll out of the midday sun for the shade of gumbo-limbo and plumeria trees.
As well as the inevitable peace found there, the cemetery is a humour-laced history lesson. Consider the epitaph for one Pearl Roberts, a legendary innkeeper— ‘I told you I was sick’ — makes one wonder how interesting an evening’s drinking on her bar stools must have been.
Or the corner of the cemetery featuring three pink grave stones for a pair of Yorkshire terriers, and their buddy Elfina, a pet deer.
Regardless of how much you might hate overt tourism displays, a visit to the Sunset Celebration on Mallory Square is an absolute Key West tradition and the perfect end to a lazy day.
While nature’s show is never less than spectacular in a dusky easel of pastel visions applauded by thousands every evening, the real draw are the dozens of sword-swallowers, cartoonists, ballad-singers and contortionists that eke out a buck with well-tuned routines.
A local chanteuse, dressed in a tie-dyed tee — Woodstock-hippy style, sings the famous chorus: ‘Everybody has a house guest in Key West’ — to multitudes who agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment.
Across the square, a rippling-muscled individual whose gig was juggling a trio of Vietnamese piglets found himself hassled and harassed by a pair of naughty kids who kept interrupting his show.
“Tell your Mom.” he said quietly to the brats “that it wasn’t really such a good idea to drink while she was pregnant.”
Aer Lingus and United fly from Dublin and Shannon to Miami - fares start at €650 return. Onward connections Miami to Key West around €200.
Key West has many of the major chain hotels — Hyatt, Mariott and Hilton, with rooms upwards of €150 a night. However, there are many lovingly restored houses, now operating as B&B’s for added choice — Duval House, Tropical Inn and Heron House are fine examples. Expect to pay around of €160 a night.
Restaurant options range from fine dining on crisp linen to harbourside eateries where you can slurp clams a few feet from the lapping water.
Try Sloppy Joe’s excellent grouper sandwiches, and soak up the vibe where Hemingway drank his heart out: The Lazy Gecko, where the pizzas come with a daiquiri; or the ancient Schooner Wharf, with great burgers and Cuban cuisine.
Key West teems with souvenir shops, many of them with very good local arts and crafts. Golfers can hit the lush fairways of the Key West Golf Club on Stock Island.
No visit to this beguiling place would be complete without a sunset cruise, complete with a chilled cocktail in hand.