“You’re gonna love Key West!” is what everyone told us. Naturally slightly cynical by nature, we thought that perhaps we wouldn’t love Key West, if everyone kept telling us how much we would…
We arrived on Friday night, and were meeting a friend of a friend of a friend – it’s always a huge benefit to have someone local to show you around, especially in such a tourist-trap as Key West. We met at the Hogfish Bar and Grille, a locals’ place on a working waterfront of Stock Island, and a few minutes later had met the owner of the place, had heaps of delicious food in front of us, had been offered a place to stay in Key West, a place to stay in Colorado, and were discussing the embargo on Cuba… it was a first-class first impression!
Key West is the (almost) furthest south point of the 48 states. (I say almost because there is a private island that is further South, but there wasn’t any hope of us being able to visit there… at least not on this trip). It is actually closer to Havana than Miami, with many monuments proclaiming “90 miles to Cuba”. A beautiful drive down from the mainland connects the Florida Keys, by what used to be railroad, and is now an impressive engineering feat of hundreds of miles of bridges and highways stitching together dozens of islands as you drive further and further out into the ocean.
The sea is shallow, warm and boasts beautiful sealife. The island itself is nothing particularly remarkable except its southerly claim – it has everything you would expect from a tourist spot: bars, a couple of beaches, boutiques and botanical gardens.
Funnily enough, the monument to the furthest south point in the 48 states is not even on the furthest south point of the island… but still the tourists line up for their photo, fresh off the cruise ships from the Bahamas or the East Coast of the USA. And then of course you have the proud ‘southernmost house’, the ‘southernmost bar’, ‘southernmost grocery store’… and the more unusual ‘southernmost hockey club’…
In some ways we came at the wrong time of year. Louise played two gigs at the Smokin’ Tuna Saloon – highly recommended place with amazing food, great fun staff, and great music! [website] But even for a long weekend celebrating Memorial Day, they were quiet evenings. The “snow birds”, as they are referred to, spend their winters in Florida, and when it gets hot they make their way up North. Many of the bar staff that we met were also preparing to leave for the off-season, and told us that their busiest season is October to February. But still, the average number of daily tourists is 25,000… as much as the population of Key West itself!
So we were glad to be in town on a quieter week, and thankfully, we didn’t have to pay the extortionate hotel rates – they are as expensive as rooms in downtown New York City. We stayed at a friend’s boat yard, which allowed us to see the “real” Key West – the people who work on the coast; border patrol, fishermen, boat builders.
Before we left, we had our introduction to the world of the Laundromat. A stark contrast to the tourist world just minutes away, we were joined by Spanish and French speaking immigrants, who were getting pushy over who was next in line to the few machines that actually worked.
And then our farewell lunch was at the place where we had been so wonderfully welcomed – the Hogfish – where we toasted Key West’s working waterfront by ordering the workman’s lunch: Meatloaf, Mash and Gravy.
So again, we are on our way… and the only way from Key West is North!