HOMEWARD BOUND, SOMEWHERE OVER THE ATLANTIC OCEAN – How does one rebound from a week in paradise, knowing full well the onslaught of e-mail, stacks of paperwork and other work-related annoyances await his arrival? It’s very simple, actually. One doesn’t, at least not easily. One simply goes with the flow, a habit he acquired while in Key West, while celebrating the 25th anniversary of his and his bride’s nuptials. It’s called Island Time, and a wholehearted subscription to it was just what the doctor ordered.
From touchdown (They serve cocktails in the baggage-claim area at Key West International Airport, for Pete’s sake!) to takeoff, it was all about doing our own thing. We had no preconceived plans of what the week should entail, with one exception: getting lost in the down-island vibe and drinking in (some evenings, literally … and possibly to excess) the total Key West experience. We succeeded. This can happen to you!
Some of our personal bests:
After combing the Internet for every possibility, a fairly dizzying array, we asked Tracy Line of Noblesville Travel to rescue us. No way did we want to stay at the old Holiday Inn we used 25 years prior on our honeymoon. We wanted to be within walking, or bicycling, distance of “everything.” The answer – and a fantastic one, at that – was the Hyatt Resort and Spa on Front Street (http://keywest.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/index.jsp?null). The king-deluxe room was bright and comfortable, with great amenities and a fabulous view of the harbor and beyond it the Gulf of Mexico. The staff was a bend-over-backward, ultra-genuine, smiling team. The restaurant, bar, pool and marina had us feeling as though we never needed to leave the grounds to enjoy a rejuvenating vacation. The smartest thing we did, while waiting to check into our room, was to make friends with Mark the Bartender. We were thirsty, and he had knowledge. A transplant from New York, Mark knew the “cool things you should do while you’re here.” As he told us which, he grabbed a map and highlighted finer, out-of-the-way restaurants and attractions. He urged us to get away from the T-shirt shops and clubs on Duval Street and to get to attractions early in the day (Hemingway’s house, for instance), “before a cruise ship dumps 3,000 people on this island.” Sage advice. He did point us to the Atlantic end of Duval, where the locals have their own art galleries; it was a visually-stimulating adventure, with media of all sorts.
Two Friends (http://twofriendskeywest.com) is a wonderfully relaxing, open-air breakfast joint with genial and quick service. If you don’t try the shrimp-and-scallops omelet with Swiss cheese and a dab of Hollandaise, you’ll have only yourself to blame.
Two words: blackened snapper. Fresh! Available as a lightly grilled sandwich on rye at Pat Croce’s Rum Barrel (http://rumbarrel.com/), it was, singularly, the best lunch option on the island. I verified that twice after the initial run-through. Just to be sure.
Hands-down, this was the highlight meal of the trip. Michael’s (http://michaelskeywest.com/), a garden-setting eatery tucked into a quiet neighborhood, was THE perfect choice for our anniversary dinner. An appetizer of scallops on baked Brie with a wine-and-mushroom sauce could have been dinner with two more orders. I, however, had a tender, flavorful filet mignon that rivaled any piece of meat I’ve eaten anywhere in the world. My bride had mahi with an amazing pineapple-mango glaze. The owner brought us out a chocolate mousse concoction with a “Roman candle” in it in recognition of our 25th; it was on him, and as stuffed as we were, it was the capper on the best meal we can remember having. The pinot grigio and the stunning service certainly contributed to our rating.
OK, we cruised up and down Duval, no lie, but it’s not what you think – and, yes, we did buy some T-shirts. We might have popped in for a beer/cocktail here or there, but the cruising was done on bicycles we rented for the week, simply the best transportation move we could have made. With all the open–air joints and bike racks aplenty, we wandered into an out of nightspots, or simply paused at curbside, while listening to mostly solo artists do their thing. But when in Rome … you have to try the Key West Sunset Amber Ale. Refreshing. And … no regrets the next morning. We also thoroughly enjoyed the mojitos at The Boathouse. And back at the ranch, Mark proved to be the best bartender of the week.
If you don’t try the conch fritters at The Blue Mojito at the Hyatt (http://keywest.hyatt.com/hyatt/hotels/entertainment/restaurants/index.jsp – 43102899) or the fish tacos at Turtle Kraals (http://www.turtlekraals.com/), you WILL go to h-e-double hockey sticks.
We loved seeing all the J. Seward Johnson statues in Old Town, as they reminded us of home, but probably our favorite excursion was a bicycle ride through the Truman Annex. We saw the Little White House, where the former president used to stay (Harry S.’s version of Camp David), and the other homes were magnificent. As we don’t do the typical tourist thing(s), we also found ourselves happily pedaling through neighborhood after neighborhood, admiring the architecture, renovations, restoration, gardens and courtyards. A lot of imagination makes it all come together in some cases, and you get the feeling that down island anything is possible. A legendary sunset at Mallory Square is a must, and there you also will find street musicians, fire-eaters, quirky characters and a whole bunch of folks like you. Tip: Don’t expect the “green flash” when the sun sets into the Gulf of Mexico; it’s island “legend,” and it’s baloney. If you do see it, be sure to order yet another drink.
The key to maximizing your time in Key West, at least for us, is to first eliminate what you don’t want to do; it probably will be a short list. The next thing is to take off your watch, and unless you absolutely have to make a reservation, forget time. Decide the must-see/must-do objectives and check them off at a leisurely pace (you’ll really have no other choice, as that vibe envelops you). If you’re like us, the only rushing you will do will be bolting up to the room at the last minute to pack and head to the airport. We tried our best to miss our return flight, but, obviously, we didn’t succeed.
The diversity of people – from the townies to visitors from multiple domestic locales and foreign lands – was something we both celebrated and, in some cases, appreciated for the amusement value. Key West is a melting pot, and for every Elvis impersonator standing atop a milk crate outside The Bull, there is a well-heeled traveler from somewhere. The friendliness of business owners and managers is the real deal; they very much care, they want you to enjoy, they want you to be happy and they want you to have rich memories so you’ll return. We did, we were, we have and we shall, without a doubt.
Steve Greenberg is the executive vice-president of Current Publishing, LLC, and the general manager of its newspapers. You may write him at email@example.com.