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.
A group of friends and I work as teachers most of the year and spend our summers as counselors and program directors at overnight camps. Needless to say, this doesn’t allow for a lot of away time, so we try to make the most of it when we have it. A couple of years ago, we discovered Key West, and not only did we find so much to do, or not do, depending on our mood, we also got the most bang for our buck.
It was a hard sell for a couple of the guys, seeing as how the trip was planned for two weeks in August and we were going as far south as we could and still be in the country. To be honest, I think all of us felt a little trepidation, even though we had seen the weather charts and what the average temps were. We convinced ourselves that it wouldn’t be too bad, and if it was, there would be plenty of air conditioned Key West restaurants and bars we could duck into, and all of that beautiful cool ocean water to go swimming in.
Yeah, it was warm, but you know what? That might not have been the best thing. Keeping schedules as busy as we do makes it hard to just slow down and relax, but Key West coaxed us into that. We spent days the way you should on a tropical island vacation, lounging in the shade and sun feeling the tropical breezes, and nights that were filled with wonderful meals, exciting bars and great live music. This year will mark the third year we’ve made this trip, and nobody has even suggested we think about somewhere else.
My wife and I have a lot in common (they say that helps when you get married), but one thing that freaks her out as much as I love it is flying. It doesn’t matter how big the plane is, she is holding on for dear life while I have my face plastered to the window. Naturally, this makes certain vacations off limits, including most tropical islands. Thankfully, that list doesn’t include Key West.
Whenever I went in the past, I would fly directly into the airport, not only because I enjoyed seeing Key West from the sky but also because a car is unnecessary on an island so small. Naturally, I knew my wife would want none of that, but what we could do is fly into one of the mainland airports and enjoy the drive down the Keys highway. From the first time I took her, she enjoyed the Key West restaurants and island vibe as much as I did, and soon we were going twice a year.
It was when she brought up wanting to go away for a long weekend that I finally made the move. I showed her that a couple of airlines flew in on a 737, the same planes we fly on almost everywhere else. By not having to worry about the drive, we could make it back and forth to Key West and still enjoy all three days.
Her desire for a tropical getaway outweighed her fear and we made the trip. I don’t think it will ever be her favorite airport in the world, but it is certainly her favorite island.
I would love to be able to see the world. Unfortunately, my boss doesn’t see that happening anytime soon, and if he fired me so I’d have the time, it would severely limit the money I had. A few years ago, I discovered the next best thing. If I couldn’t see all of the world, then I would go somewhere that a lot of the world has seen: Key West, Florida.
Key West has a recorded history that goes back almost five centuries, meaning that when the United States finally became a country, people had been calling Key West home for 150 years. These people first were the explorers from Europe, followed by fisherman and sailors from New England and the Bahamas, sponge divers from Italy, cigar makers from Cuba, and artists, musicians, writers and chefs from all around the globe.
This influence can be seen on every block, and each time I go back, I try to discover a little more of it. There are walking tours that point out the architecture, museums that celebrate the various influences, brightly colored paintings hanging in the galleries, and so many Key West restaurants with menus that make you think you’ve visited a hundred different places.
Before I go, I decide what I want to explore when I get there, and by the time I’m done, I have several new ideas for my next trip. At the rate I’m going, I’m going to have to quit my job just so I have time to get it all done in my lifetime.
I wanted to do something special for the family vacation this year. Kids being kids, it can be hard to find something for everyone. One unbreakable rule is that no matter where we go, there has to be at least a pool and preferably a beach as well, so if someone is just too sullen to have fun with the rest of us, they can hang out there with one parent while the other plays tour guide. Kids also being kids, they thought there was nothing we could do to surprise them, so we decided to go somewhere they had never heard of before: Key West, Florida.
They tried hard to play it cool, but that vanished when we were checking into the hotel and a chicken ran right in front of us. They were excited and told the manager, who shocked them even more when he told them the chicken’s name and warned them that he – the rooster, not the manager – would probably be waking us up every morning around five. Sure enough, the next morning he was up before the sun. More surprisingly, the kids were up with him, watching him strut around the courtyard.
Everything we did after that in Key West was one surprise after another. They had never been to a tropical island before and were overwhelmed by all of the plants and flowers. Their picky eating habits disappeared and they tried key lime pie, fresh seafood and even conch fritters. And the only time anyone went to the beach was when we all did, so they could go snorkeling and see if they could find any of the buried treasure that helped make Key West famous.
We live in Ithaca, New York, and this past winter, our town achieved fifteen minutes of internet fame when our board of tourism replaced its typical web pages with links to the Florida Keys tourism board. When you’re buried under six feet of snow and the temperature is hovering in single digits, it’s pretty obvious that Key West is a better vacation spot than upstate New York.
As much as we would have liked to get away during this horrendous winter, between our kids being in school (when it wasn’t closed) and the airport being buried, we could do nothing but dream. That didn’t stop my husband from looking into what a vacation in Key West would be like. He was smart enough to look at times when all four of us could go, and that was when he made some surprising discoveries.
Discovery one was that there was plenty to do for everybody. Key West has a reputation as a party town, but we found several different activities that would keep us all busy. And when we didn’t want to be busy, there was always a beach to go to. Discovery two was that the average summer temperature in Key West is lower than other more “touristy” locations in Florida. We all talked about it and decided we would try something new this year.
We’re still undecided about flying in or driving down on the Overseas Highway, but no matter how we get there, we are already looking into planning our summer vacation by letting everyone pick one day where they get to choose what it is we do. With so much to choose from, we’re going to run out of days before we run out of options.
Every culture has its customs, every Caribbean island has its traditions, and Key West, Florida is no different. It truly has so much to offer that makes it a terrific island getaway and a leading choice for destination weddings, with Key West restaurants offering fresh seafood in beautiful outdoor dining areas. It offers history and architecture, live music and watersports, and enough to do to keep everyone entertained for a long time. It also has something that everyone else has, but nobody does nearly as well: the sunset.
In Key West, the sunset is more than just the difference between day and night. It is time for a celebration…to stop whatever it was that you were doing and be reminded that we are all part of something bigger. Every night the crowds gather. The most famous spot is Mallory Square, where you can find fire eaters and musicians, jugglers and magicians (and even trained cats!) all performing for you. Elsewhere on the island, there are waterfront bars and quiet beaches, all full of people taking a break from the rest of their lives, waiting for the sunset. When it does, you can hear the applause echo across the island.
Once the sun goes down, it is time for another Key West tradition to light up: the Duval Crawl. Known as the longest street in the world (it runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico) this is the night life capital of the world. Regardless of what type of bar you like, there will be something for everyone, from rowdy live music venues to quiet corners tucked among the trees. It is the steamy side of the celebration, and one that happens every night in old town Key West.