I’m not a fan of crowds, which can make going on vacation a little tricky. If I want to go somewhere during their slow season, I run the risk of places I want to visit not being open. It’s a trade-off I’ve been willing to make, but ever since I visited Key West, Florida, I realized it was one I didn’t have to worry about much anymore.
The busy time of the year down there runs basically from Christmas through Memorial Day, or so I’ve been told. I wouldn’t know from experience, but what I do know is that in July, I can walk into any of my favorite Key West restaurants for a great meal of fresh seafood. I can sit down at any of the bars I like to visit, get a seat up close to the live music, and probably end up getting to meet a local or two. I can pick my spot to watch the sunset without worrying about someone getting in my way, and I can take all the time in the world lounging by the pool with a good book, knowing nobody’s going to ask me if the seat next to me is taken.
It helps that, surprisingly enough, the weather there is not nearly as hot as you might think. When I compare the temperatures to other, much more crowded places where I could take my summer vacation, it turns out that many of them are just as hot if not hotter. So what if I don’t know what spring break in Key West is like? I know what summer vacation is like, and that suits me just fine.
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.
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.
I’ve been engaged now for about three years. It’s been so long that our friends have stopped asking us “when” and started asking us “if.” The truth is that we want to make sure our wedding is special for us. Not necessarily “big church, lots of attendants, fancy reception” special – although we’re not opposed to that – but meaningful, so that when we look back, we know we did it right. We never thought that might include basically eloping.
My fiancé was reading an article about destination weddings and how couples were already making plans for 2016. The article mentioned that Key West was actually the most popular choice for island weddings. She looked at me, I looked at her, we looked at our summer schedule and we started making phone calls and online searches. In three days’ time we hired a wedding planner and booked a weekend trip to meet with her and discuss our options.
The trip was great. We ate at a few of the Key West restaurants she suggested for our reception, looked at some of the locations for the ceremony and got an overall feel for the island. When we reached some decisions, she had a schedule ready so we could be sure to pick a weekend when we could have all we wanted.
Those same friends that started asking “if” aren’t really surprised by our decision. Most of them are pretty happy, in spite of their good natured grumbling. I mean, who wouldn’t want an excuse to have to take a vacation to Key West this July?