KOOKY KEY WEST:There’s magic in this tourist town
Key West has always been a favourite port for cruise passengers and, as Jimmy Buffet sang, of “pale invaders and tan crusaders worshipping the sun.” But, it’s also a destination “at the end of the road… where the green of the gulf meets the blue of the sea,” according to the eminent parrothead-in-chief.
At the same time, the capital of the “Conch Republic” – which is currently celebrating its “independence” for four days starting today (Nov. 27) – is a decidedly kooky sort of place, long a mecca for eclectics and a home for hippies, rainbow warriors, and free thinkers of all kinds. America’s southernmost city at the bottom of the Florida Keys is without a doubt the most unique city in the United States.
From its famed Hemingway Days to zombie bike rides, the island-city has a bit of everything, and then some.
Consider some of these Key West quirks, tidbits, events and downright fascinating facts:
• Key West is the southernmost city in the continental United States – closer to Havana than Miami.
• People born in Key West/Keys are called “Conchs” and are inclined to remind you, “This is not America!” Living there for seven years makes you a “freshwater conch.” And high school sports teams are nicknamed Conchs and Conchettes.
• US Hwy 1 starts in Key West – the Mile 0 marker is a landmark and tourist attraction – and runs for 3,813 km up the east coast to the Canadian border at Fort Kent, Maine.
• After US border control set up a roadblock (searching for drugs) in 1982 that created a massive traffic jam to the Keys, Key West in protest seceded on April 23, 1982, declaring the Conch Republic and war on the States. But after a Conch conked a government official on the head with a loaf of bread, the new republic promptly “surrendered” and demanded a billion dollars in foreign aid (which they never got). “That,” says one resident, encapsulates the Keys.” Except for this year, April 23 is celebrated as Independence Day in the Keys and Conch Republic flags (motto: “We seceded where others failed”) and T-shirts are popular souvenirs.
• The closest Walmart is on the mainland over 200 km away in Homestead, Fla., near Miami.
• Duval Street is 1.8 km long and connects the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico – a 20-minute walk, unless partaking in a “Duval Crawl” at the many drinking establishments dotted along its 14 blocks, in which case, residents warn, “it could take weeks.”
• Jimmy Buffet’s first Margaritaville retail store opened in 1985 on Duval Street. Buffet fans – “parrotheads” – and others looking to feel the unique island vibe will also find the newly renovated Margaritaville Resort & Marina on nearby Front Street.
• Pan American World Airways flight No. 1 departed Key West on Oct. 28, 1927, for Havana making it the first scheduled international flight from the US. The historic Pan Am building on Whitehead Street is now the First Flight Restaurant and Brewery.
• From traditional food and wine, music and literary festivals to quirkier options like the annual New Year’s Dachshund Walk, Conch Shell Blowing Contest and the Key Lime Festival, which includes the World Key Lime Pie Eating Championship, there’s always something colouring already colourful Key West.
• Iconic events: Renowned masking and costuming festival Fantasy Fest annually in October (cancelled due to COVID in 2020) is an exotic extravaganza that features masquerade balls, costume competitions, body painting street fairs, performance art, glamourous galas, and an over-the-top grand parade. Meanwhile, Hemingway Days, has for over 40 years each July celebrated the acclaimed writer who lived in the city for a decade with a series of events, including readings, fishing tournament, paddleboard race, Key West-style running of the bulls, and, of course, the signature look-alike contest.
• Key West Pride (held annually in June) is five days of fun for Key West’s LGBTQ visitors, friends, and allies on the island known for its accepting “One Human Family” atmosphere. Events typically include pool parties, late-night drag shows and soirees, the finals of a renowned cocktail competition, on-the-water adventures, a street fair, pageants and a colourful parade.
• Also, each June CoralPalooza gives divers the opportunity to plant a coral to help restore a reef during a weekend dedicated to promoting awareness of coral reefs in honour of World Oceans Day. There are also many activities for landlubbers at a family-friendly day of goings-on at the Exploration Center.
• Dubbed the world’s only “zero k” marathon, the annual Cow Key Bridge Run (February) is a fun-for-all event for those who “feel like running across a bridge in the Florida Keys without waking up early or breaking a sweat.” Participants dress up – or don’t – and there is a party with beer “close to the finish line,” promise organizers. “Runners” are then invited to “join your weirdo friends as we hop, skip and jump down to the Survivor’s Party at the new Sunset Green Event Lawn.”
• You can actually start the day with key lime pie at Breakfast at Blue Heaven, or eat it on a stick, in a jelly, or give it to your dog at Kermit’s, which specializes in all things tart and yellow.
• The island of Key West is a bird sanctuary and, notably, home to close to 2,000 protected “gypsy chickens” – descendants of fowl brought by early Cuban settlers – which roam the city at will.
• The Garden of Eden rooftop bar, located on the uppermost level of the Bull and Whistle, is the town’s only clothing optional rooftop bar, where patrons can relax and imbibe in any state of dress, or undress, they wish. The G of E epitomizes the Florida town’s famous free-spirited atmosphere.
Jimmy Buffet certainly sang it best: “There’s still some magic left in this tourist town.”
First published at Travel Industry Today