Key West is best as a destination, not a port call

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KEY WEST, Fla. -- Visitors may be coming here by cruise ship in ever-increasing numbers, but I did it the old-fashioned way. I drove and had days instead of a few hours to experience the charm and diversity of a most exotic destination.

Whether arriving by land or by sea, a visitor will find Key West is different from the rest of Florida and the Caribbean. The hours spent ashore while on a cruise can be enjoyable, but its better to have sufficient time to explore the island and discover its culture and attractions.

Thousands of cruise passengers disembark on most any day to walk along Duval Street, perhaps spend an hour touring the island on the Conch Tour Train and choosing from among the many historical sights and recreational activities.

It is a fitting introduction, but theres so much more. All it takes is a drive of less than four hours from Miami or a nonstop flight from points in Florida or Atlanta and a little time to unwind and become a temporary native.

Visitors easily mingle with Key West islanders.

Many destinations have a tourist area that is separate from places where the locals can be found, said Harold Wheeler, director of the Florida Keys Tourist Development Council. But everybody tends to go to the same places in Key West whether theyre a tourist or a local.

Visitors join locals in a true Key West setting at Blue Heaven.From breakfast in the outdoor courtyard of Blue Heaven to packed bars with live music on a typical evening, visitors and residents mingle.

Sunset is a big event on the island; crowds line the dock at Mallory Square as the magic moment arrives. 

There are sunset cruises as well. As I sailed past the throngs at Mallory, I met Roderick Gill, managing partner of Pisces seafood restaurant.

Gill exemplified many residents who are trying to maintain the character of Key West amid the influx of cruise passengers. The cruise business is welcome, Gill said, but the challenge is to maintain the reasons why visitors and residents are attracted to Key West.

The TDCs Wheeler promotes tourism but is cognizant of its impact on quality-of-life issues.

As cruise arrivals increase, he said, businesses develop to cater to cruise passengers. We need to protect historical areas as much as possible and regulate, if necessary, the growth of fast-food and cheap gift shops.

Wheelers ideas were echoed at a meeting with Randall Osipow, executive director of the Key West Innkeepers Association; Peter Llchuk, president of the Lodging Association of the Keys; and Heather Carruthers, president of the Key West Business Guild.

The three tourism leaders reinforced the prevailing view that efforts will be made to maintain the quality of tourism on Key West for the benefit of island residents as well as visitors.

Walking down Duval Street and through the prime tourist areas, the proliferation of T-shirt emporiums and their ilk was evident. But there were plenty of real Key West establishments, too.

The island has retained its essence while catering to an explosive growth in tourist arrivals. Cruise passengers can visit a unique destination without leaving U.S. shores, while overnight guests will find plenty to see and do or emulate many locals and do little amid the laid-back atmosphere.

I was invited to attend the Summer Key West Food and Wine Festival and found the level of sophistication among local chefs to be on a par with the cuisine of their renowned brethren in most any locale. Some 80 restaurants and bars are spread throughout the four-mile-by-two-mile island.

Gills Pisces is located in Key Wests Old Town district, in a house dating to 1892. The restaurant opened as Cafe des Artistes in 1982 and now emphasizes seafood and intimate fine dining amid signed Andy Warhol prints.

I began with Chef Andrew Bermans signature duck foie gras that was sauteed, served on a pastry pedestal and adorned with honey-thyme vinegar sauce and caramelized apple.

Lobster Tango Mango has been a specialty of the house for 15 years. Maine lobster is flambeed in cognac with shrimp, saffron butter, mango and basil; even visitors from Maine rave about it.

Chef Susan Ferry of Cafe Marquesa presented selections the previous evening to launch the cooking school at the Restaurant Store. Her baby conch ceviche, Hawaiian tuna sashimi and beef tenderloin with truffle oil provided an auspicious debut for the unusual store.

Although ostensibly a place for local chefs and restaurateurs to obtain tools of the trade, a tour with owner Richard Talmadge turned up high-quality kitchen implements and gadgets that also would work well in many homes.

Key West has a wide range of accommodations that differ in type as well as price. There are hotels with resort facilities and ocean views plus a variety of motels and budget properties, but agents can also recommend a guesthouse for clients who want a distinctive place to stay.

Many were originally private homes, date to the early 1900s and offer luxury amenities.

If clients prefer a hotel, choices near Mallory Square and the start of Duval Street include the enlarged Pier House, the Hyatt Key West Resort and the Hilton Key West Resort.

The only thing we overlook is the ocean is a motto of the 461-room Wyndham Casa Marina that opened in 1921. The hotel, and the adjacent Wyndham Reach Resort, make guests feel like theyre beachfront on a Caribbean island. The Sheraton Suites and Best Western Key Ambassador Resort are across from Smathers Beach, the islands largest.

But my favorite for clients on a budget is Southernmost on the Beach, with rooms that face a swimming pool and the ocean. Rates through Dec. 23 range from $149 to $300 per night. Children under age 18 stay free with parents. For reservations, call (800) 354-4455.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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