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.
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
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
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
mingle with Key West islanders.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
originally private homes, date to the early 1900s and offer luxury
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
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.
the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].