Become a Conch in Key West

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Mama, I’m freezin’, I wanna go to the sun;
These icy winter breezes are chillin’ all my fun. 
– From Key West, by the Village People

As we boarded an early morning flight out of Central Wisconsin Airport in early March, temperatures were well below zero. By afternoon, we were driving the through the Florida Keys in 86 degree ocean breezes. Now that’s value.

As plain vanilla as going to Florida in March may be for people in Wisconsin, there is plenty of territory in the Sunshine State that is just flat-out not reliable for truly warm weather in late winter.  It may be nicer than Wisconsin, but spending a beach vacation in a sweatshirt instead of suntan lotion isn’t what a lot of people have in mind when they’re planning an escape. That can easily happen in the Florida panhandle or at Daytona Beach.  Key West doesn’t have that problem. As the crow flies, it’s another 470 miles from Panama City Beach to Key West and it’s mostly south. That means an entirely different climate zone for the southernmost city of the continental U.S., which places it safely on the northern edge of the tropics.

We flew into Fort Lauderdale and rented a car. While it is interesting enough to see the Keys and it’s about like driving to Milwaukee at 189 miles, there is a lot of two-lane roadway, plenty of bad drivers, towns to go through and even a drawbridge that gave us a short stop along the way. Now that we’ve seen it twice, we probably won’t do that drive again. Key West International Airport welcomes around 360,000 arrivals annually and another 700,000 each year arrive on cruise ships. In all, Key West hosts more than 2.6 million visitors each year, with March being the peak month – not bad, for a city of less than 26,000 who call themselves Conchs (pronounced konks.)

Our hotel is the Crowne Plaza Key West – La Concha, located right on Duval Street in the heart of the historic Old Town district. Tennessee Williams finished his iconic, Pulitzer winning play “A Streetcar Named Desire” here in the 1940s. Dating back to 1926, the large boutique hotel has had regular renovations over the years. It also has high rates – easily reaching $500 a night in March as it books up, plus another $26 a night for parking. An IHG credit card provides platinum status (which means free parking) and I had a collection of points substantial enough to trade for the rest. Of course, Key West has plenty of other lodging choices, including condo rentals and a plethora of bed and breakfast establishments in historic homes close to the action.

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Duval Street is the main drag in Old Key West, with an impressive concentration of historic buildings; something like what Bourbon Street is to the French Quarter of New Orleans, but not quite as drunk or dirty. There is a lot of live music and plenty of night life, along with a lot of restaurants, art galleries and small retail shops. Walgreens is housed in the impressively restored Strand movie theater and other buildings feature neatly painted antebellum balconies and porches. Old Key West is very much built on a human scale. Streets are narrow, parking is competitive and the best way to get around is on foot. That said, we wanted to orient ourselves to all that our island had to offer, so we rented scooters the first day at $35 each for five hours – plenty of time to fully explore the 7.4 square miles of the island. With things narrowed down, we rented bicycles the following day. The car stayed parked for the duration of our stay.

Mention Key West and a lot of people instantly think of musician Jimmy Buffett, whose original Margaritaville saloon does a brisk business on Duval Street and faithfully plays his music over the sound system. But Buffett and his parrotheads are far from the people who discovered or created Key West. Famous residents over the years have included Winslow Homer, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, John James Audubon, Ralph Lauren, Robert Frost, Calvin Klein and Harry Truman, who made 11 trips to his Little White House and spent 175 days of his presidency in Key West. You can tour Truman’s home, as well as that of Earnest Hemingway, which is still populated by six- and seven-toed cats that are descendants of his own from the 1930s.

The other thing that populates the streets, alleys, yards and parks of Key West are feral chickens and there are a lot of them. The roosters are colorful and noisy, beginning their struts along the streets before sunup in the morning and then mostly retiring to more secluded locations as the traffic picks up. About a decade back, the city hired a chicken catcher to try to cut down on the population. It was controversial and the post was discontinued around a year later. Now, people can live trap problem chickens and drop them off at the Key West Wildlife Center. The chickens have been around as long as anyone can remember and it’s just another thing that makes Key West a little different.

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The oldest house in Key West dates back to 1829 and as luck would have it, it was playing host to the 53rd Annual Conch Honk during our visit. We joined hundreds of people who came to the garden to enjoy the competition; a fun mix of locals and visitors. The Florida Keys and Key West declared themselves the Conch Republic in 1982 and they are doing their best to keep traditions alive here. A panel of judges dutifully heard the one-note renditions and evaluated them on the basis of quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds. It was cute for a while, but we slipped away before the trophy presentations to get an especially good table on the porch of the restaurant next door.

Seafood is king in Key West. It’s especially welcome for people like us, who live inland and have limited access to fresh catches. In addition to various conch-themed dishes from soup to fritters, there is fresh fish, shrimp and shellfish as regulars on the menu. One of our favorites is stone crab. Unlike other crabs, stone crabs are harvested by removing one claw leg and then they are returned to the water to re-grow their lost limbs. Claws are sold by graded size from medium to colossal. The Stoned Crab in Key West does a very nice job of preparing the claws in a manner that is not only tasty, but makes these rock-hard crustacean claws possible to easily consume. Set on a pier that forms its own little harbor, it’s an ideal place to enjoy some wonderful al fresco ambiance along with those fabulous crab claws.

Of course, there are other specialties represented in Key West and one of them is authentic southern pit barbecue, which is something not to be missed when you’re in the south. Like most places in Key West, it’s casual dining. But casual or not, we found that no matter where we went or what we had, our bill for two invariably fell between around $45 on the low side and approximately $70 on the high side.

Sunset

Key West has some public beaches and while they are decent, it is not a beach destination in the way that Clearwater, Cocoa Beach or Miami and Fort Lauderdale are. It’s more about being around the water than being in it. One particularly interesting side trip for great snorkeling and exploring a Civil War era prison is The Dry Tortugas National Park. It’s about a 70-mile ferry ride from Key West and it will consume most of a day to take the tour, but it is truly unique.

If you find yourself in the neighborhood of the Custom House Museum at the end of the day, then just walk with the procession of people heading toward the waterfront to join the large crowd that gathers every clear evening for the sunset. Watching the sun go down over the warm ocean being flanked by palm trees is almost enough to make you forget that it was below zero back home.

JR

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