Key West is a bit like the entree that features on every American breakfast menu, ‘Eggs, any style’ – it can be whatever you want it to be, whether that’s over easy or pretty scrambled.
Its eclectic mix means that on a walk down mile long Duval Street you’ll see everything from art galleries, boutique stores and upscale wine bars, to tacky souvenir shops, drag queens and noisy bars. And that’s as well as Darth Vader playing a banjo and an elderly man riding a bicycle in a pink tutu.
And the great thing is that everyone in Key West rubs along very nicely together. The pencil thin drag queens in slinky pink and green dresses stand on the pavement trying to persuade you into the bars where they perform, but not in a pushy way. And lots of the bars use live music to tempt you in, rather than the ridiculous deals on drinks that we’d seen at lots of places on our US trip.
The music in Key West is an eclectic mix too. Some bars feature solo ballad singers, some showcase country bands and others are nearer to rock. Whatever you like will be catered for somewhere and as nowhere seems to charge an entry fee, you can wander around from place to place all night long.
Of course nightlife isn’t the only reason to come to Key West, though I’ll come back to it again later. It’s a really pretty town filled with colourful wooden houses, many of which are B&Bs or small hotels, and it’s also the Southernmost Point in the Continental USA. That means it’s just 90 miles from Cuba where Americans are still not allowed to travel, though I guess that may be changing in the not so distant future.
There aren’t masses of tourist attractions in Key West, but a popular one is the Southernmost Point buoy where people wait in a nice orderly line to have their photo taken. Just along the road from here is Ernest Hemingway’s House, where as well as the famous writer’s former home you can see a colony of the famous six toed cats that he bred.
This is in the historic district and a local artist we chatted to recommended the Conch Train tour as a good way to see the area and learn about it. Unusually for Key West we didn’t have the best weather so time was limited, but it did sound a fun and interesting way to see the town.
Great weather is another reason Key West is a popular US vacation spot as its pretty consistent year round. But as with any tropical climate there’s always a chance of some extreme rain and thunderstorms and we were unlucky to have a full day of that and then another where the sun never broke through the clouds.
When the sun did shine though it was fabulous. The sky was the brightest blue and the sea a mix of turquoise and pale blue. There are some beaches, though those close to town aren’t very big, so unless you have a car, a hotel with a pool is a good idea. We stayed at the Southernmost on the Beach which was beautiful and in a great location, but very expensive considering the not always exceptional service.
Water sports are another popular activity in Key West and there are plenty of places offering dive, snorkel and Jet Ski tours. There’s plenty of shopping too. As well as restaurants and bars, Duval Street has a wide range of boutiques and galleries and with very little traffic around, its easy to stroll along and cross the road if something catches your eye. One place that might stand out is a Gentleman’s Club called Gold Diggers where the prominently displayed menu outside offers Fantasies, Fetishes and Role Play. Like I said, it’s an eclectic mix here!
So, back to the nightlife. Starting with food, I suspect it would be pretty hard to have a bad meal in Key West. There are so many great places to eat. On Duval Street we loved One Nine Five and La Trattoria for dinner and had a great lunch at the Banana Cafe. Cafe Moka is also good for sandwiches and cakes.
After dinner you can have whatever type of night you like. Live music and mojitos at Willie T’s on Duval where every inch of space is covered with signed $1 bills, or at the Hog’s Breath on Front Street, where we had the strongest Pina Coladas I’ve ever tasted – it’s the rum floater that does it! The Green Parrot in Whitehead Street is in a similar vein too, though more popular with locals and the band played a pretty heavy rock sound the night we were there.
For an entirely different experience there’s a beautiful mansion building with a wraparound porch set back on the corner of Duval and Caroline Streets. It has been divided into The Porch on one side serving craft beer, wine and bubbly and The Other Side where the expert bartenders mix up both classic cocktails and ones with a quirky twist, while you relax on leather bar stools and sofas.
Equally relaxed are two wine bars we loved. At Vinos on Duval every wall is lined with bottles, the ceiling features corks used in various designs and still more of them are jammed into jars all shapes and sizes. Then there’s Grand Vin, a wine shop with a good selection to take away, a small bar and a lovely front porch perfect for Duval Street people watching.