Key West Travel Guide
Sunset in Everglades National Park © Esther Lee
Watching a splendid sunset while dining al fresco on delectable seafood at one of 250 or so restaurants is but one of the pleasures in store for visitors on holiday in the USA's most southernmost city, Key West, at the tip of the Florida Keys and at the end of US Highway 1. Packed with sights and attractions this historic island city supports a vibrant community, including a large gay population, and boasts a long seafaring and naval tradition, situated as it is at the gateway to the Caribbean, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, and in close proximity to Cuba.
Key West, also known as the 'Conch Republic', has a distinct Caribbean flavour, the streets of its old quarter lined with palms, tropical flowering plants and pastel-painted wooden colonial 'gingerbread' houses. It is a city that has been the favoured holiday haunt of greats like Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Harry Truman, because of its relaxed atmosphere, colourful neighbourhoods, legendary bars and restaurants, offshore fishing opportunities and lively nightlife. The city also hosts innumerable pageants, parades and festivals, has a busy theatre culture and several heritage museums.
The streets of Key West are alive with life, buskers providing impromptu entertainment for those lingering at sidewalk cafés or browsing the many stores. Visitors on holiday here flock to 'The Bight', the old harbour, to arrange sea trips for fishing, snorkelling or diving. As the sun sets on Key West it is traditionally celebrated with drinks and good cheer on the Mallory Dock, before the nightlife awakens among the dozens of establishments in areas like Bahama Village, and along Duval Street.
Shopping in Key West is an invigorating holiday experience, with hundreds of boutiques and specialist stores concealing a treasure-trove of unexpected merchandise. Browsing will reveal surprises like Florida fruit wines, rare seashells, originally printed artistic tee-shirts, hand-painted glassware, or famous Key Lime Jelly. There are shopping centres and malls, bargain outlet stores, souvenir shops, designer labels, and fine jewellery establishments. Key West is regarded as a Mecca for shoppers seeking the unique, exceptional and even outrageous.
Pure pleasure for the palette, no-one will leave Key West without the memory of having dined deliciously at some of the world's top-class restaurants on dishes prepared by award-winning chefs. The choice is vast, from formal gourmet establishments to seaside cafes along Duval Street, the waterfront or tucked away in the old town. Fresh seafood predominates, along with tangy Florida citrus fruits and exotic Caribbean additives like plantains and black beans. There is also a marked Cuban influence on the Key West cuisine. The absolute delicacy of the island is the locally harvested pink shrimp, served up in every guise imaginable in a wide variety of establishments, from waterfront kiosks to five star restaurants. Also sought after is the famed dessert, Key Lime Pie, made from the pulp of tart local limes and topped with meringue. Square One restaurant in the old town is regarded as one of the most outstanding eateries on the island, while for more casual but no less tasty feasting the Half Shell Raw Bar in the historic seaport serves up its delights in baskets in a 'crab shack' setting.
The beat goes on in Key West long after the legendary sunsets, with a wide spectrum of bars, taverns, grog-shops and dance clubs partying until the following morning. Just a walk down Duval Street will assail the ears with a variety of music from techno to hip hop and jazz to retro. Visitors are advised to pack their favourite hangover cure. One of the most popular Key West night spots is the Hog's Breath Saloon on the corner of Duval and Front Street, where live blues and rock music is washed down with copious amounts of ice cold beer on the packed dance floors. On The Bight waterfront the Conch Republic Seafood Company is reputedly the largest rum bar between Miami and Cuba, offering more than 80 brands to sample in its boat-shaped emporium. Another hotspot is the 801 Bourbon Bar, renowned for its saucy drag cabaret shows.
There need never be a dull moment for anyone on holiday in Key West. The only problem likely to be encountered is that you run out of time before indulging in all the attractions, excursions, tours, walks, experiences and events on offer. Some of the more fascinating activities include swimming with dolphins, a lantern-led ghost tour of the Old Town, a sunset sail on a tall ship, taking part in the 'southernmost city scavenger hunt', or riding the Conch Tour Train through 400 years of history. There are also innumerable attractions to visit while on holiday in Key West, such as a butterfly conservatory, aquarium and a variety of interesting museums. Then, of course, there are lovely beaches to be enjoyed, all equipped with picnic tables and facilities, along with a host of watersports offered by local operators, not least of which are big game fishing and scuba diving.
Mosquitoes can be a nuisance and travellers are advised to take plenty of repellent.