Thursday, November 04, 2010

Travel: Romancing the Florida Keys: Key West

Part 3 of a three-part series about romantic travel in the Florida Keys.

Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa
Love is in the air in Key West. Photo taken at the Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa.

If you've been following this series, you know I wended my way down to Key West via Pierre's in Islamorada and Hawks Cay. But ah, a big exhale ... a big lung-filled "ahhhhh" ... as wonderful as those two stops were, I can only sigh when I say Key West. I can only sigh because whenever I think Key West, "I can't wait to go back" creeps up into my conscious mind.

Key West is that ultimate destination for Miamians -- ultimate because if you drive any further, you'll end up in the water and ultimate because, unlike South Beach, it's so NOT South Beach. In Key West, you'll find no high-rise condos and most importantly, no bullshit.

But you have to bite the bullet and go the distance.

Once you cross the Seven Mile Bridge on the overseas highway, you enter the Bermuda Triangle of South Florida. A part of you disappears, only to reappear later, upon your return, with your hair ruffled out of some whirlpool gurgling forth at that first Florida turnpike toll booth. An instant lobotomy is performed at mile marker 47 when there's nothing but crystal clear Caribbean blue water on either side of your speeding vehicle. Suddenly, you're humming Jimmy Buffet and just like the first few seconds of twilight anesthesia, when the happy chemicals enter your veins, you forget about that thing, (what was it?), that gave you hives and an anxiety attack yesterday at the office.

I'm not kidding. These are the waters of Lethe. Weird wonderful things happen on the way to Key West. Hey, not long ago, a woman idiot shaved her punani while driving on the overseas highway. Well, that's another story. (Seriously, that was ridiculous. Don't shave and drive.)

I’ve been to Key West many times yet on this particular visit, even as a jaded Miamian, I enjoyed a whole new perspective. The southernmost continental U.S. city is a three-hour drive from Miami and it’s not called the Conch Republic for nothing -- surely a place like this should have its own governance. Life is different here, luring tired souls from points elsewhere to settle down on a island four miles wide and two miles long.

Strike up a conversation with a bartender or waiter who looks a little weathered and you’ll invariably hear something along the lines of “I came here to visit twenty years ago and never left.” And it really is easy to strike up conversation here -- some of the friendliest service in South Florida I've ever had, completely lacking in the signature South Beach snobbery. As one local put it: “We don’t care where you’re from, who you are, rich or poor, famous or not," the business owner said while sipping her rum drink. "We treat everyone like equals here. We treat people like we would like to be treated.”


Last August, I spent two days in Key West doing absolutely nothing and yet as much of everything as I could. I walked a lot, taking in the sights and sounds of Duval Street and other roads less traveled on the island. Here are personally tried and true romantic things to enjoy.

The Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa is a quiet, secluded oasis that's a stone's throw from busy Duval Street, Mallory Square and the Historic Seaport. Stay in a gulf view room, where you’d be silly not to have “sex with a view” on that comfortable king size bed -- with complete privacy, of course. Just don't squeal like a pig because you might scare the tarpon schooling in the gulf just outside your terrace.

Don't be fooled by the title of resort; it's not some mega property. The place is cozy and because it's associated with a spa, it just smells really good. Beautiful pandanus trees, orchids and a fountain full of turtles greet guests by the pool and courtyard.

Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa
The entrance to the Hyatt. It really does smell good here. So relaxing.

Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa
Sex with a view. Or rather, your Gulf of Mexico view.

Key West is famous for its sunsets and most people go to Mallory Square, a waterfront promenade where street performers and vendors abound. It's fun, to be sure, and just right for those "we're holding hands but don't want to talk to each other" moments. However, if you're in the mood for something more personal, here are three alternatives.

Talk to the concierge and arrange a hands and feet reflexology massage for couples at the Hyatt's small man-made beach. The massage package comes with champagne and the promise of relaxation as the sun goes down. If you're not in the mood for a rub, take a sunset cruise with Floridays, a laid-back, casual two-hour trip on a beautiful 60-foot monohull, drinks included. You can board the vessel right from the Hyatt's dock. And if you're not feeling sea worthy, have dinner at SHOR, the resort’s restaurant, for a gourmet meal and direct view of the golden orb making its exit on the horizon.

Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa
A cocktail anthem: Oh say can you see the sun setting from my martini? Drinks at SHOR.

Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa
The lobster appetizer special at SHOR.

Hyatt Key West Resort and Spa
The view from SHOR. Sunset cruises coming in to dock at port. I didn't retouch this photo, promise.

Further afield, there are other dining options. No one can be affectionate on an empty stomach, so hungry lovers might find themselves at Café Solé, which was recommended to me by Captain Robert of Floridays (always ask the locals). Café Solé is an utterly charming and unpretentious restaurant about one mile from the Hyatt. French trained but Key West toughened, Chef Correa prepares sumptuous fare, inspired by Provence.

The affable chef told me he’s only one of two chefs on the island who personally catches the lobster on your plate (during legal season) and snags the snapper for his signature hogfish dish. “I get up very early in the morning, “ he said. “But it’s worth it.”

Correa’s hogfish -- a delicate filet served over a roasted bell pepper hollandaise -- certainly delighted my palate, as well as the lobster fennel orange salad, and the unbelievably tender conch carpaccio. By the way, raw conch is known as an aphrodisiac in Caribbean lore. Some market women in Antigua once told me it was nature’s Viagra. Feel free to test it out.

And speaking of food that makes you horny, no couple should skip Better Than Sex, where you might die la petite mort (a little death -- that’s what those fancy French literary people call an orgasm) and go to dessert heaven. Open the door of this dark, intimate restaurant and the heady scent of chocolate and baking will penetrate your nostrils in ways that should be illegal. To call this place decadent would be an understatement and yet it's classy and understated, as all sensual things should be.

Desserts and drinks all have hilariously sexy descriptions. Try the "Caramel All Over Me" -- fragrant, floral moscato wine with the glass dipped in caramel. Yes, you have to lick the glass and if you don’t relish the sensuality of that, you have no business doing this love thing! Pair that with the Grilled Cheese Sandwich -- a heavenly melted brie and chocolate mix -- and if you’re willing to work it off later in the bedroom, the Kinky Key Lime -- quite possibly the best version of this Florida Keys staple I’ve ever tasted (besides my own, of course).

For shopping, stop at the Mel Fisher's Treasures where you’ll find reproductions from original artifacts displayed in the museum just down the street, also named after the famous treasure hunter.

Talk about romance: during my visit, I had a chance to inspect a limited edition $10,000 gold and emerald cross necklace; the original was once a gift from a New World colonizer who was engaged to the daughter of Spanish king. The vessel carrying the jewels shipwrecked and the marriage went bust. Oh well.

Key West - Duval Street
I want this for my birthday. Just kidding!

Of course, that’s a pricey gift, but nonetheless, a sight to behold.

 Less expensive are the lovely bracelets by Loukas Kongos, a Greek jeweler who moved to Key West shortly after Mel Fisher found the Atocha treasure. Kongos is a fourth generation jeweler and claims he is responsible for the original Key West love bracelet (you'll find imitations in other shops, but the story goes that Kongos simply didn't apply for the trademark in time to stop the copy cats). Each piece of jewelry in his stores are hand cast in his studio on Duval Street. The namesake bracelet is made in gold and sterling silver variations, relatively affordable at under $200.

Key West - Duval Street
Loukas Kongos working on his jewelry. He was very kind to let me into the studio.

Key West - Duval Street
Kongos also designs variations on the Key West love bracelet. I love me the fishes and the mermaids.

You know I had to ask the locals about romantic places for enjoying cocktails. Louie's Backyard was a unanimous choice in my unscientific survey of four discriminating beverage experts. The waterfront spot is rustic but elegant. I found myself surrounded by loyal locals late in the afternoon before sunset.

Louie's Backyard
Louie's is a long-standing gourmet restaurant as well. I didn't have a chance to try the food here.

Louie's Backyard
Drinks with a view at Louie's.

Louie's Backyard
The only thing missing here was the chance to clink glasses with my friend Ines the mojito queen from Miamism.

On the south end of Duval Street, you'll also come across The Rum Bar at the Speakeasy Inn. Hopefully you'll quench your thirst some afternoon when Bahama Bob is around -- he makes the best and meanest Dark and Stormy I've ever tasted in South Florida. That's Bermudan Gosling's dark rum mixed with Gosling's ginger beer, served over ice. Real ginger beer, my friends, yes, that spunky stuff with bite, not that spineless piss water Americans know as ginger ale. If rum is your thing, and drinking it at an original rum runner's den rocks your world, then don't miss this authentic watering hole, where you're also bound to meet some locals.

Key West - Duval Street
There are more varieties of rums here than there are hookers in South Beach. You do the math.

Key West - Duval Street
Bahama Bob, Californian transplant and rum bartender extraordinaire. Tell him Sex and the Beach sent you.

The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory won't take but an hour or so of your time but is well worth a visit. Stroll through the atrium, where small finches and butterflies may alight on your shoulder if you're lucky. It's simply beautiful.

Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
A little tropical paradise on Duval Street.

Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
Beauties like these flit about in the conservatory.

Another alternative to get in touch with all things au naturel is the clothing optional bar, Garden of Eden, where you probably don't want anything of a microbial character to alight on any part of your body. I went there during the day and saw no flesh. Blah. I moved on and didn't bother going back. Maybe you'll have better luck. Personally, I'd rather be staring at my lover's body in that great Hyatt room I mentioned above.

Key West - Duval Street
Uh-oh. The sign at the entrance of Garden of Eden. All I know is that I'm not bringing my friend and colleague Carlos Miller to this joint, unless handcuffs are a fashion accessory.

And speaking of bodies, maybe drag doesn't seem like heterosexual romantic, but hey, it's a barrel of fun in this crazy town. Stroll by 801 Bourbon and you'll see what I mean. I found myself lulled by the siren call of the queens and at $10 cover, who could resist? The show is hysterical and of course, fabulously campy from beginning to end. I saw plenty of breeders enjoying it, so don't be shy. It's a great way to round out an experience of Key West. Hopefully you'll catch Ms. Gassy Winds as MC. She/he had me in stitches and was a better woman on stage than I'll ever be.

Key West - Duval Street
She ... he ... is something else. This isn't Gassy Winds but one of the other performers.

Just about everything I've described above was done in a span of two days in a stress-free, relaxed schedule. But there's much more to see and do on the island. Activities abound. Visit the official Key West destination site for myriad tips and suggestions. And of course, there's always Visit Florida.

You can also take advantage of comfortable bus rides to Key West daily with Miami Tour Company, but no matter how you get there (flying on a puddle jumper into a regional airport is another option), I recommend at least one overnight stay.

Get back to me if you experience that "aha" moment on the Seven Mile Bridge ...

Below, a full set of photos from my journey.


Carlos Miller said...

Nice vivid details and excellent photos!

Unknown said...

Love your writing and the pics are gorgeous. I really need to stop reading your blog. I am getting this uncontrollable urge to just leave the kids on my in law's doorstep with a little note, right the doorbell and run and not stop until I reach Key West. :)