After a hearty Venezuelan breakfast of cachitos, tequenos, empanadas con carne michata and pastellitos, the Valdivieso family and I were ready for the 4 hour drive down to Key West, the place where you go to either lose yourself or find yourself. Unfortunately, only one night would give me the opportunity to do neither, but at least I’d get the chance to have a few rums and a beer of two at some of Earnest Hemingways old haunts.
The drive to Key West offers up splendid views as you head down the US Route 1 highway. You pass down through the Keys, past Key Largo, the charming Islamorada, and on over the impressive Seven Mile Bridge (a 4.5 star ‘rating’ on Trip Advisor, so it must be worth the drive over!) to Key West. The entry point, down North Roosevelt Boulevard, is as impressive a first impressjon as any, as you skirt past the Gulf of Mexico and past all the posh boats dotted around in front of equally luxurious-looking houses. We turned right onto Duval Street – the main tourist thoroughfare. The hotel, the Casablanca (http://www.keywestcasablanca.com/welcome-to-casablanca-key-west-hotel/) looked lovely from the outside as it is one of the many hotels in this area, ‘Olde Towne Key West’ , which are set in restored houses from the late 19th century. Checked into room 1 – a lovely, airy, room with a big bed, 2 elegant ceiling fans, and a spacious balcony that unfortunately looked out onto a small street full of rubbish bins where nearby restaurants dump their food. Still, the huge windows had white wooden shutters, so we didn’t need to look out onto the ugly scene
It was 3 o-clock. We headed straight out onto the pleasant street and strolled down to South Beach. The walk down was lovely, and we passed many brightly decorated shops, food stalls, bars, and restaurants jostling for space either side of the street. The atmosphere was festive – it was the Key West food and wine festival, and it was Superbowl the next day, so there were plenty of drunk locals and American tourists about knocking back bottles of red wine in the warm Florida sun. We walked past several places claiming to be the ‘southernmost’ of their type – ‘southernmost hotel’, ‘southernmost inn’, ‘southernmost restaurant’, ‘southernmost toilet.’ It is indeed the southernmost point of the USA down here –and only 90 miles to Cuba. In fact, you can see Cuba from the Southernmost Point buoy on a clear day. The buoy It got 3.5 ‘stars’ on Trip Advisor. How disappointing can a buoy be? Aside from the ridiculousness and absolute blind subjectiveness of rating a bridge, a statue, or a buoy, I guess the 3.5 stars – relatively low – was because you need to queue up to get a clear photo and even then there are people in your way. I took a photo of Vero and her family, and one of me and Vero in front of this landmark, and then we walked on back up Duval street. Dying of thirst, we stopped off in a nice beer garden to listen to an ageing acoustic duo play some sunny folk as we supped a Rolling Rock beer followed by a Key West Ale, an amber-coloured brew that isn’t particularly sessionable nor is it refreshing, but worth a try.
Sated, Vero and I left her mum and dad behind and walked up the street to Mallory Square for sunset. Duval street was buzzing now, and not in the same way as Ocean Drive buzzes. Where that place is all about bling-bling, reggaeton, hip-hop, commercial pop, and samey restaurants, Duval street is all art galleries, rustic bars with live acoustic music, and a great selection of independent restaurants catering to all budgets and tastes. It’s artistic, creative, a little bit crazy – a perfect foil, no doubt, for Hemingway. I loved it.
Mallory Square was full of people, full of entertainers, and full of colour, music and fun. The Disney cruise ship was in, there were yachts and catamarans and little speedboats and sailing boats everywhere, cutting across the orange trail of sun set. There was a slightly unhinged man drawing quite a crowd with his tightrope walking cat show. Cats, not the easiest of animals to train unless you’re a Buddhist monk in the floating village at Inlay Lake in Burma, were meandering around, lazily responding to the man’s commands (and if they weren’t he was picking them up and putting them in place). “Go where you liiiikkkeee, do what you waaaannnttt……do what you waaaannnntttt!” the man kept singing, as his cats did just that. Still, he did get one to jump through a ring of fire, he was entertaining, and the cruise ship passengers bought at least a few of his ‘Cat Man’ DVDs.
We bought an over-priced but strong mojito from the drinks truck outside the cruise ship, then we headed slowly back to the hotel. After a powernap, we were ready to rock. We hit the Rum Bar on Duval Street (http://rumconnection.com/rum-bar-kw/) , just under the Speak Easy Inn. 240 varieties of rum. Heaven on earth. I asked the bar-tender to recommend one to try straight up. She took out a bottle of Venezuelan rum, Diplomatico, which I’ve had plenty of, so I went for her reserve option – Plantation 20 years old from Barbados. It was beautiful, and I was spinning after just one glass straight up. Perfect. I could have stayed all night, but it was past 10pm, and we hadn’t had dinner. We went to a lovely Italian, and enjoyed lobster ravioli and lasagna, washed down with some lovely Malbec. This was as classy as the night got. We hit the oldest bar in town after this, Captain Tony’s saloon (http://www.capttonyssaloon.com/) , where ‘legends have been drinking for decades.’ This place is not just a bar- it’s a piece of living history. There are dollar notes pinned up everywhere with business cards and car registration plates, and hundreds of women’s bras hanging around the bar. Hemingway used to pop in, drink and write. They say he met his 4th wife here before he buggered off to Cuba. A tree that is in the middle of the bar was a hanging tree that was used to hang pirates and one woman who is said to haunt the bar. There’s an arcade game in the corner. The player is a hunter who hunts elk, moose, deer, and annihilates them with a big shotgun. Yeeeaaahhh! A rum runner seemed fitting for the place, then we headed off to Sloppy Joe’s bar (http://sloppyjoes.com/) for another drink, and a dance. The last spot on our little tour was an Irish bar. There was an amiable chap playing acoustic guitar with a decent singing voice. I liked it. They had a huge banner that read ‘Thank you for protecting our freedom’ with the flags of the Navy, Army, Airforce, Coastguard and others underneath. I get it, here in the US. The American flag flies high and proud from most houses and businesses. People are proud of the forces, and there are Military Nights in many pubs where military get free entry and cheap drinks. People in America are proud to be American. They are a patriotic people. It’s great to see. It you fly an English flag in England these days, you are accused of being nationalistic and insensitive to other cultures. Wtf?
We walked to the hotel via a bit of window shopping. We stopped at one place that sold the deadliest looking flick-knives I’ve ever seen. The owner was more than happy to give me some demonstrations. “You see this? Flick that button right there. “ The knife shot up with brutal force. “Go right through your palm if you’re not careful.” I couldn’t believe these things are on general sale – they’re instruments of pain. Or maybe people use them for peeling potatoes or something.
The next day, we all went on a shopping spree, broken by a walk around the outside of Hemingway’s House, by a wonderful lunch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, and by a delicious coconut and pineapple and pralines and cream haagan dazs ice-cream. Time to leave Key West. It had been a short (24 hours) but sweet trip, and I really wanted to stay. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to go back to Miami Beach. Was I crazy? Maybe…..but Key West leaves an impression, for sure. I think I preferred it, but then, I’d probably be bored of it after a week. Still, it’s well worth a visit. Say hello to Captain Tony when you’re there.