Key West is a mixed bag of the gracious and the graceless, charming tourists and dropouts alike

THE KEYS TO FLORIDA

December 06, 1992|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Contributing Writer

Be Nice," says the bumper sticker on the airport taxi.

Whoa . . . what planet is this?

The same one whose Jersey-born mayor likes to brag about his past as a gambler and gun runner; the same one that, in a dispute with the U.S. Customs Bureau several years ago, declared itself an independent nation and applied for foreign aid; the same one whose cemetery contains such quirky gravestone epitaphs as: "I told you I was sick" and "At least I know where he's sleeping tonight."

This is Key West, Fla., where waywardness is cultivated and eccentricity celebrated. Here, as the locals say, it's normal to be a little crazy.

Ernest Hemingway once quipped that he had moved to Key West in 1928 because there was "nowhere else left to run."

Indeed, this is the end of the line -- literally, the southernmost city on the U.S. East Coast -- just 90 miles from Cuba -- and the last resort for dropouts of all ages fleeing the pressures, responsibilities and norms of straiter-laced locales.

It is also, of course, a real resort, a tourist-trampled hot spot for Northerners fleeing the chilly scenes of winter. Come January, the permanent population of 33,000 swells to 60,000; some 1 million people a year visit the tiny 2-by-4-mile island, which sits dramatically between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Down they come, driving the 159 motel- and trailer park-cluttered miles of U.S. 1 from Miami through 40-something other keys; flying into the tiny Key West Airport on little prop planes; or sailing into port on private yachts or cruise ships.

Here, they find clear blue fishing waters, fine seafood restaurants, some of the prettiest gingerbread architecture anywhere, and shopping for everyone.

Accommodations run the gamut from budget chain motels to waterside deluxe resorts and pretty guest houses with morning

croissants by the pool and sherry at tea time.

The main drag

Key West's main drag is Duval Street -- bursting with noisy bars and bistros, galleries, craft shops and knickknack nooks. Although it's only 1.3 miles long, locals like to say it's the longest street in the world, because it runs all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. There it dead ends into the T-shirt stands, shell shops and other tourist traps around Mallory Square -- famous for its nightly off-the-wall sunset celebration.

The town is nothing if not eclectic. Hit Key West on certain weekends and you could encounter a gay drag ball and a Cuban Sweet 16 dance. A famous jazz musician may be sizzling at one of the swank resorts, while, on the street, an anonymous performer with a song in his head beats out a Latin tempo on the pavement with two sticks.

Around town, meanwhile, packs of tourists wield minicameras and mammoth video recorders; wildly dressed men and women swallow fire and juggle live and inanimate objects simultaneously; and aging hippies wonder -- out loud, at times -- where the '60s went and who invited all these tacky people.

Sensory overload can come fast and fierce.

But wait: Blessedly nearby, Key West has a more subtle soul. Just a short stroll from Duval's glare, tree-shaded side streets remain tranquilly oblivious to the neighboring hubbub.

Vibrant bougainvillea and frangipani, tall gnarled banyans, airy palms and dense green avocados -- the amount and variety of tropical foliage will make you think you've wandered onto some Caribbean island.

You can spend hours strolling along the quiet lanes, gazing admiringly at the gingerbread architecture -- much of it painted pastel shades of pink or blue, or lime green. Some of the houses are lavishly landscaped and opulently adorned with graceful verandas, porticos and columns; others are just humble, even ramshackle, cottages.

Pick up a copy of "The Pelican Path," a street-by-street guide to the city's historic houses, and the "Solaris Hill Walking and Biking Guide," which has maps of scenic and cultural routes in and around town. Both are free at the Key West Chamber of Commerce in Mallory Square, as well as at hotels around town.

Guided literary walking tours also are available. You'll see the homes of Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and Robert Frost, among others. The city boasts eight Pulitzer Prize-winning writers among its past or present residents.

Tombstones and crypts

For a bit of solitude, walk north to the city's 21-acre cemetery -- and wander among the tombstones and crypts. In line with the quirkiness of Key West's lifestyle is its unique "death" style. Here you'll find the tombs of pet deer and puppies -- with passionate odes to their passing -- as well as an as-yet-unoccupied grave. The live owner has been diligently adding to his marble memorial all the nicknames he has acquired through the years.

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