a.k.a., How I ate my way across Key West in 4 days.
01.07.2011 - 05.07.2011
Key West is a little jewel of an island that sits at the very end of the chain of the Florida Keys. Connected to the mainland by US Highway 1, it is the southernmost point in the United States. The closest Wal-Mart is 126 miles away and happy hour begins at 7:00 a.m. at the Schooner Wharf Bar. Key West has more churches per capita than any other place in the country, which might have something to do with the fact that it also seems to have more bars per square foot. I guess you can commit your sins on Saturday night and redeem yourself on Sunday morning. It has six toed cats and more chickens than you can shake a stick at.
It is the very definition of laid back. Dotted with conch shacks and palm trees, it has the flavor and feel of the Caribbean without ever leaving home. It's like Spring Break for adults and I was lucky enough to spend a long weekend basking it it's sunny glow.
We flew out of Knoxville early in the morning to avoid the summer thunderstorms that are all too common in July and to get a jump start on the day. As the sun came up over the Smoky Mountains, I dozed in my seat as Matt piloted us south.
Before I knew it, the keys stretched out before me......a dotted ribbon of green in a sea of turquoise. We were here!
We landed at the tiny Key West airport, grabbed a rental car, and were on our way.
First order of business was to check into our home away from home, an adorable cottage one block off Duval Street - near the center but closer to the quiet end. The location could not have been more perfect. The house couldn't have been more perfect either. The front structure was a 1 1/2 story open structure with a large den and kitchen. Glass doors stretched all the way across the back, opening onto a middle courtyard with a pool and hot tub. Behind the pool was a separate cottage that housed 2 bedrooms and the most beautiful bougainvillea.
We dumped our stuff and hit Duval Street. I guess Duval Street is the main drag of Key West, housing most of the bars, tourist shops, and restaurants. While there is a lot to be seen off Duval Street, this was our first visit to Key West and I am not ashamed to admit that as much as we kept saying we were going to spend some time elsewhere, we ended up strolling up and down Duval about 90% of the time. It was just so darn fun, we couldn't pull ourselves away.
The length of Duval is right at a mile. If it seems longer than that, it's probably because you've had one too many mojitos down on Mallory Square. If it also seems wobbly in addition to long, you probably should have passed on that third Grainorade from the Flying Monkey.
We headed toward the Southernmost Beach Café, a short stroll down Duval from the house, so that we could grab some lunch with a view of the beach. As we strolled, we noticed a lot of southernmost things. There was Southernmost Realty followed by Southernmost Guesthouse, the Southermost monument and the Southernmost House. I am pretty sure I even saw the southernmost crumpled soda can in the street.
Of course, we had to get the tourist shot of the monument. To not take this photo would be like leaving NYC without a shot of the Empire State Building or visiting Paris without a shot of the Eiffel Tower to send to Aunt Pearl in Idaho. I think it's technically a Key West exit requirement. They make you show them this photo at the airport before they let you out.
I read somewhere that originally there was just a sign, but people kept stealing it. I don't think they have to worry about anyone stealing this. I don't know, after a few Grainorades, I might try.
Within minutes we were at the Southernmost Beach Café, staring out at the waves, and I had a Sunkiss in my hand. This might be the tastiest, and prettiest, drink I have ever had.
A lunch of smoked fish dip, coconut shrimp, and a mango bbq pulled pork sandwich was brought to us by the perkiest, smiliest, chattiest Australian waitress that made me feel like I was being served by a 20 year old Bindi Irwin on high doses of Prozac.
Lunch was a long and lazy affair. By the time we got up, we instantly started moving about 50% slower than we had when we arrived. I think Island Time had set in through a combination of intense July heat, excess food, and sunkiss overload.
That did not, however, stop us from stopping at another bar on the short 4 block stroll back to the house. Seriously, it was so hot you really needed to stop every 3-4 blocks and get another drink to cool off. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
A 4:30 start to the day, followed by a 5 hour flight, followed by drinks and food and Australian waitresses on happy drugs, led to nappy time. We went back to the house and enjoyed the pool and air conditioning for the afternoon. Aaaahhh.......that pool was heaven.
Matt is an oyster FREAK and he wanted to make sure he didn't miss the 50 cent happy hour oysters, so we eventually pried our pruned and waterlogged bodies out of the pool and headed to Half Shell Raw Bar.
Half Shell Raw Bar was the kind of seafood shack you see next to the boat docks in most Florida towns. Nothing fancy, more likely to have newspaper than tablecloths, usually with a row of Harleys and pick up trucks lined up out front and a row of boats lined up out back, more dive than restaurant with the smell of steamed shrimp and beer wafting through the open doors.
The happy hour oysters are only available at the bar, so we saddled up and Matt ordered 3 dozen. I ordered a bucket of voodoo juice and some more coconut shrimp and conch fritters. As he slurped and sucked, I read through the 9,765 license plates they had tacked up on the wall. If you have ever had a plate stolen, stop by here. Maybe you can find it.
Happy Hour was followed by a visit to Peppers Key West. Matt and I have a true love of hot sauce. We love all things spicy. The more it burns, the better it is. This place was to us what FAO Schwartz is to a kid on December 23rd. Hot sauces of every shape, size, color, and flavor lined a 4 sided bar and all were available for tasting.
We tasted. We burned. We cried. We enjoyed.
With a bag of newly acquired superhot treasures in hand and our tongues on fire, we headed to Mr. Mojito in Mallory Square to cool the burn and watch the sunset.
That's Mr. Mojito himself, right there. I have to insert a funny story here. When I told a friend I was heading to Key West, she told me about the time she stopped at Key West on a cruise. Mind you, my friend is a sweet, quiet girl who doesn't have a lot of cocktail experience. There is a nice bar here at home that specializes in "fancy mojitos." One of their house cocktails is made with X-Rated Fusion Liquor (you know, the fancy pink stuff in the cool bottle?). They call it an X-Rated Mojito. Not realizing this was a specialty cocktail particular to one bar in one city, my friend walked up to Mr. Mojito in Mallory Square and, it being the only mojito she had familiarity with, asked him to make her an X-Rated Mojito. She said that Mr. Mojito, paused, looked at her and said, "What do you want me to do honey, take my clothes off while I make it?"
The Mallory Square sunset celebration is a fun way to watch the sun go down. Crowds were light, so it wasn't the shoulder-to-shoulder sweat-fest that I had anticipated. There were several pockets of people watching various street performers - the fire jugglers, the crazy cat guy, or my favorite, the bad banjo player whose golden retriever wore boxer shorts and walked around taking tips in his mouth and depositing them into a bucket. (Yes, I gave that dog a dollar.how could I not?). I could hear salsa music from El Meson de Pepe and the smell of fried food mingled with the salt tinged air. It was one part carnival, one part Cuban street party, and one part magical sunset. It was 999 parts fun.
We enjoyed our first Key West Sunset.
It was our first day, and we wanted to see everything at once. That translated to visiting way more bars than was practical or advisable in one night. Yes, this was after a 32 oz voodoo bucket and a sunset mojito.
We drank our way through Hogsbreath Saloon, the Smallest Bar, and Sloppy Joe's. I only know this because I had photos of them on my camera the next morning. I really liked the Smallest Bar. It was like an elevator with liquor. And better music.
We ended up at Bobalu's where there was a live band and hot pizza. I am pretty sure that Bobalu's garbage pie at 1:00 a.m. is the 8th wonder of the world.
I think I went to bed after that. I'm not really sure. Duval Street leaves things a little fuzzy....