There are certain things in this world that I want to make sure I experience at least once. They range from simple things, like dining in a Michelin starred restaurant, to scary things (skydiving, anyone?) to pretty big things. I want to see the running of the bulls in Pamplona, for instance. It seems like the more I do, the more things get added to that list, however. One of them is attending Fantasy Fest in Key West, Florida.
A month ago, I didn’t even know what that was. My buddies and I were on a golfing and fishing vacation in South Florida and that included a few days in Key West. We got to talking with one of the bartenders, and she mentioned how it was the busiest week of the year, full of absolute insanity, Key West’s version of Mardi Gras. When she heard us talking about maybe coming down, she advised us to start making plans now.
I thought she might be overstating the case a little but when we got home, I did some research and saw how right she was. I immediately booked a hotel room and made reservations at several Key West restaurants, including one for the night of the big parade that overlooks the parade route. Now I need to figure out just how many costumes I need to pack and what parties I am going to try to attend. People say the best plan for something that big is no plan at all, but I know that I want to make sure I do as much of it as I can, just in case it’s the only chance I get to do it.
The first time I went to Key West was spring break my senior year of college. I immediately fell in love and tried to go back down every couple of years. Usually I went the same time of year, when the cold at home was too much to bear. A few years ago, I got a travel deal alert for a super cheap airfare. The trip was for late July and I thought it would be too hot, but the deal was too good to pass up on, so I booked it.
The heat ended up being a non-issue, partially because Key West in the summer isn’t as hot as you might think, and mostly because I was having way too much fun. I really got an understanding and feel for what life was like when it was much less crowded and the locals went on their own tropical vacation, or “staycations” as they like to be known. I got to do everything I always did when I went down there, including eat at my favorite Key West restaurants and spend a day fishing for tarpon, but what made it special was getting to know the people who call it home.
They’re the ones who explained how to handle the heat: simply do everything a little bit slower. Suddenly having plans wasn’t so important, hurrying to the next thing didn’t matter, and as long as I knew when it was happy hour where and what time the sunset was, I would be fine. My annual summer vacation is coming up next month, and I can’t wait to hurry up and do nothing.
When I found out my niece was planning a tropical wedding, I assumed that meant no invitation. Not because she wouldn’t want me there, but because there’d be no way she could afford a large number of guests. When my wife and I got the invitation, I assumed that meant we wouldn’t be able to make it because it would cost too much and be too difficult to get there. When my wife showed me just how easy and affordable it would be, I realized I needed to stop making assumptions and start paying attention.
She picked Key West as the tropical island for her destination wedding, and I could see that, in many ways, it was no different (and therefore probably not more expensive) than a wedding back home would have been. She wasn’t stuck using a specific wedding package from a resort but instead could create her own ceremony and reception, hire her own entertainment and work within her budget.
Key West also meant there were dozens of hotels to choose from and several different travel options, which helped keep the costs low for her guests. Many of the family members I talked to at the reception remarked on the same thing I had thought, that once they heard about it they wouldn’t be able to make it. Instead, some of them had the opportunity not only to see her get married but also take their first vacation to the tropics. My own daughter has a few years to go before she’s marrying age (thank God) but at least I can now say I won’t be too worried if she says she wants an island wedding as well.
I was fortunate enough to attend a supplementary high school program my last two years. It was great because it helped me focus on my studies and the small size made everybody very close. At my traditional high school graduation, I marched with almost 200 students. At my other school, there were 26 of us. With a class that small, not only are we able to keep in better touch, we can also have more fun reunions. This year it was Key West, Florida.
We schedule one every five years and we have a small list of requirements. The location has to be relatively easy to get to. With an airport of its own and a highway back to the mainland, everyone had a simple time making arrangements. There has to be plenty of places to stay and eat. Key West just opened two new resorts and remodeled another four hotels, giving them the highest number of rooms they’ve ever had, and there are over 300 Key West restaurants to choose from. Finally, it had to be a place few if any of us had visited and be a destination vacation we wouldn’t normally think of on our own.
In hindsight, what made Key West the best choice was not anything on that list, but the wide range of activities to choose from. Between all the ocean activities, the history, the arts and entertainment and the beaches, we didn’t feel the pressure to do everything together. We could all do our own thing and still get together every night for a meal to catch up. We vowed we’d never repeat a locale, but five years from now, we may have to rethink that rule.
I have always wanted to have a tropical island wedding. There has never been any question in my mind about it, so when my boyfriend and I first started talking about getting married, I let him know that in no uncertain terms. He laughed and made some “bridezilla” joke, but when he saw the look on my face, he knew now was not the time for joking, so he did what he does best. He went to work researching our options.
Many of the resorts that offered tropical island weddings had very specific packages and other restrictions that made my dream seem more like a nightmare. I wanted the wedding to be on my – okay, our – terms, which meant being able to choose where we held it, what type of reception we could have and the number of guests we could invite.
At first, that didn’t look like it was going to be an option, but them my fiancé stumbled across an article about tropical destination weddings in Key West, Florida. The article made it seem so easy I figured there had to be a catch, but we started making some inquiries, even talked to a few couples who had been married down there, and all of them said what a great experience it had been. We had never been there, but between all the great recommendations, we figured we’d give it a shot.
It ended up being an even better wedding than I imagined. Everything was beautiful and perfect, thanks to an amazing wedding planner. I even brought home a little sand stuck in my dress, and I’m going to keep it there as part of my memories.
I’ve been working as a server in Key West for a few years now. One customer that stands out in my mind came in a couple of years ago for lunch. He and his wife were on a cruise and point blank asked me what the quickest item on the menu was. We offered a slow simmering Cuban style stew that could be out in just a couple of minutes. He said, “We’ll take two, two waters and the check.” He did manage to find enough time to explain that since they were on the cruise, they wanted to see as much as they could in the little time they were here.
I was talking with some of my fellow restaurant working friends that night over beers and we all agreed they were missing out on what Key West had to offer. Part of the joy of coming here is to be able to relax and enjoy the laid back atmosphere. I understand a cruise only offers a limited amount of time to see everything a tropical island vacation has to offer, but how much of it are you going to remember when you simply try to rush through it all?
A few nights ago, I was at work and this couple came in for dinner. They relaxed, took their time and we got talking about all the different Key West restaurants they had visited during their stay. That was when they told me about their first visit: it was the same couple! We laughed about it, and they admitted that the only thing they really remember from their first visit was realizing they needed to come back when they could really enjoy Key West.
I would like to say I’m vigilant about where all my food comes from and what additives might be in them, but I’m not (I’m currently snacking from a box of crackers while I type this). But when given the option to try out a “farm to table” restaurant or buy produce that I know was grown locally, I’ll certainly take advantage of it. Still, I don’t think anything beats the freshness of the meal I had when I was in Key West recently.
I took a half-day fishing charter one of the mornings I was down there and was fortunate enough to catch several fish, including a few hogfish. Hogfish is one of the best tasting fish I’ve had, but it doesn’t keep well frozen, so it’s hard to find anywhere outside of where it’s native. I gave some of the fish to the crew as a tip and wasn’t sure what to do with the rest when the mate gave me a suggestion. He said several of the Key West restaurants offer a “cook your catch” option where they will take your fish and make dinner for you.
I called up one of the places he recommended and made reservations for that night. I dropped the fish off early, and the chef asked me what I had in mind. I figured they would just fry it or grill it. She laughed and told me not to worry. That night, we had a three course meal that included hogfish in all three dishes, prepared differently each time. And as far as freshness goes, I don’t think I’ll ever beat eight hours from ocean to stomach.