Barely a trace of hurricane damage, but there is an abundance of island sounds and smells and plenty of sunshine at the southern most tip of the US. Only 90 miles from Cuba, Key West is as close as you’ll get to the Margaritaville state of mind. This town has a personality of its own.
“Just chill out like the turtles,” Carlos Morales, GM of the Hyatt Centric, told me pointing to the two large pools of turtles at the hotel—one with males and one with females sunbathing. The island vibe is Bohemian and lay back.
Morales gave me a tour of the property centrally located —thus spruced up and rebranded last year as Hyatt Centric— where I stayed during my visit to Key West. Odie, a beautiful blue macaw, 28- years- old and a guest favorite, greeted me. “He says a few things, all good,” said Morales. He’s “family raised.” Key West has evolved into a family destination.
The two by four mile island is informal and casual. The 120- room hotel has a boutique feel, as though staying with friends in a large beach house with verandas facing the Gulf of Mexico and magnificent sunsets. Walk along the HarborWalk where fishermen bring in the catch of the day. One cut open a mackerel and fed it to hungry pelicans. Walk the other direction to crowded Mallory Square to watch the sun set and the colorful characters including mimes, musicians, trained pot bellied pigs, and swordsmen cracking coconuts just in case you want to drink the delicious fresh milk while you watch the sunset across the water. Then wander into the numerous shops, and restaurants on Duval Street, and if you must, pick up a fresh rolled Cuban cigar.
Snorkeling, fishing, sailing, jet-skiing and just about anything on the water is one way to spend your days. There’s something for every interest and plenty of new attractions mixed in with the old. A rum resurgence began about five years ago; artisan rum has found its home. The Rum Trading Post is a walk in distillery. I could smell the rich sweet smell of molasses as soon as we walked in to the Hemingway Rum Co. Yes, that is “The Old Man and The Sea” Hemingway family. They are involved with the licensing of the products bearing the name; they donate all proceeds of Papa’s Pilar rum to Papa’s pet causes: conservation and preservation of the islands architecture and artifacts and literacy. Rum maker Shawn Martin demonstrated how the rum is made in this working distillery in one of the oldest standing buildings on the island, which was originally built in 1878 as a tobacco warehouse. In it’s heyday some 220 cigar factories could be found in Key West, the island made of coral rock. The exterior walls had five to seven rows of brick built to withstand dynamite.
The cellar is kept at 88 degrees. “Rum likes it warm; fermentation is quicker in heat,” explained marine biologist- turned -rum maker Shawn Martin as he wiped his face. It’s made from Florida sourced black-strapped molasses. In his former career he judged rum competitions in the Carribbean. “My chemistry background is helpful,” he said. “This is a R & D center; tourists are our focus groups.” There’s hands on smelling and tasting of the light and dark varieties.
Of course if you’re drinking, you’ll want to eat. Key West is a foodies paradise and the choice are wide. Fresh local fish—grouper, snapper, scallops —is a consistently good selection regardless of the preparation. There’s often a hint of Caribbean spice or sweet local coconut. Begin the day with breakfast at Blue Heaven, a former bordello and Ernest Hemingway hangout. The large patio where the legendary writer refereed wrestling matches, has a sand floor like a beach. It’s jammed with locals and tourists alike. There was live music on a weekday morning as a backdrop to the famous banana bread and Cuban coffee. I tried the special that morning, a lobster BLT Benedict. Since I’m not accustomed to that hefty a breakfast, I walked it off by visiting nearby museums to explore Key West literary history: The Hemingway house with relaxing gardens and Ferrel cats darting everywhere and the new self-guided Tennessee Williams museum. Dennis Beaver, a collector of vintage film and Broadway posters and other Williams memorabilia, including a typewriter and college yearbook, founded the museum. Williams lived and wrote in Key West during the latter years of his life.
I took a ferry one evening from the Margaritaville Resort to Sunset Key, a car free island, and watched a dramatically colorful sunset on the way. Latitudes, the island restaurant on the water, is not only romantic and delicious, but as Tyler, my server said: “This is a healthy place for the mind and body.” Chef Jerry Crocker’s menu incorporates fresh locally sourced fish and produce.
Dinner another evening at nearby Hot Tin Roof, an upscale Latin bistro in Ocean Key Resort, had a local vibe. I dined al fresco on the second floor terrace overlooking the Gulf while listening to live Latin music from below. The shrimp served in a sweet and mildly spiced broth with avocado, plantains and herbs was delicious.
The Key Lime Pie was a must taste after each meal as well as a stop at the Key Lime Pie Factory where Key Lime everything is available gluten free. Don’t pass up the Key Lime pie dipped in chocolate on a stick. And take home some key lime dog treats for your favorite four-legged family member.
And if you are curious, stop by “Better Than Sex,” for a sparkling wine and seductive treat at the desserts only Ma and Pa restaurant with a brothel like ambience. The Feng Shui feels right. Selections include Peanut Butter Perversion and Cookie Nookie Pie. I’ll leave it to you to decide if it’s better than sex as advertised. It’s certainly a seductive and playful setting for romance as is Key West itself.
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