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Island Daze: Key West, Florida

by Elaine Sosa

Key West doesn't have to be drunken bars, conch trains, pink flamingoes and the ubiquitous conch fritter. Have you ever tried a conch fritter? They're a rubbery mass of goo and not very good. But every year, hordes of tourists trek to this southernmost U.S. island and wind up doing the kinds of things they'd never do back home. Is this any way to spend a few days on an island paradise? Not really. The real beauty of Key West is in knowing how to savor the best the island has to offer at a languid and leisurely pace. While recreation is abundant, relaxation brings out the best of Key West.

Originally known as "Cayo Hueso," or Bone Key, Key West is an eight-square-mile hunk of coral rock at the tip of the Florida Keys, 128 miles from the mainland. The Gulf of Mexico is to the west, while the Atlantic Ocean and its warming Gulf Stream are due east. Key West was settled in 1823, more than three centuries after Ponce de Leon sailed by and missed it in his quest for the fountain of youth. Poor Ponce, because the folks who did make it here made a fortune in wrecking, sponging and cigars.

The dawn of the 20th century brought an enterprising soul to the Florida Keys, Henry Flagler. His Florida East Coast Railroad, inaugurated in 1912, extended from Miami to Key West and signaled the start of tourism in Key West and its neighboring islands. Snowbirds had a new tropical paradise to add to their repertoire. And tropical it was. Then as now, Key West was lush with foliage, blazing orange royal poincianas competing with pink hibiscus blooms and wandering bougainvillea. The dampness that hung in the air seemed to enhance the heady aromas of flowering shrubs.

Today, visitors come to Key West from north, south, east and west. And why not? The prospect of a few lazy days is hard to resist. True lounge lizards will want to spend their days and nights at the Marquesa Hotel in Key West's Old Town. Think sanctuary as you make yourself at home in one of several turquoise-hued, wood-frame buildings which date to the 1860s and have been beautifully restored. The Marquesa is a block off busy Duval Street, but it's far enough. A concierge greets you on arrival in a lobby filled with antiques and fresh flowers. You are then whisked through leafy gardens to one of 27 rooms, all graciously appointed. Live a little and choose a suite, where you can sleep on a hand-carved, 400-pound Agathus sleigh bed from Indonesia or watch a little telly while swaddled in a soft, waffle-weave robe. The bathrooms are marble and worth a few hours of your time. Step onto your private porch and ponder your next move: a dip in one of two aquamarine pools? reading under a swaying palm? a nap? The Marquesa is as alluring outdoors as it is in, so the choice won't be easy. If you get hungry, stop in at the Cafe Marquesa, an elegant dining room which serves "Food of the Americas," a mix of North and South American, Caribbean and Cuban fare. Dazzle your palate after a day of play. Now that's living.
600 Fleming Street
(305) 292-1919 or (800) 869-4631

Any trip to the beach is not complete without a handful of good reads. Stock up at L. Valladares & Son, the kind of newsstand you'll wish you had back home. This Duval Street landmark has been selling The New York Times to visiting snowbirds since 1927. There are plenty of newspapers and paperbacks here to keep you busy, but the real fun is in finding a magazine you didn't even know existed. Valladares carries everything from Acoustic Guitar to Sew News, Country Sampler to Slam, Flash Art to Mothering. Yep, you can buy Time and Vogue, too, and even People in Espanol. According to current owner Arthur Valladares, Vanity Fair is the top seller. No surprise there, since a little news and gossip are the ideal way to while away an afternoon.
L. Valladares & Son
1200 Duval Street
(305) 296-5032
Open seven days

A great way to start your day on Key West is with breakfast at Blue Heaven. The menu announces "Breakfast with the Roosters," and they're not kidding. Blue Heaven is located on a dusty lot which used to be home to cockfights and boxing matches. Ernest Hemingway used to referee the Friday night fights, and is said to have thrown a punch or two himself. Papa also got in on the cockfighting action, but he wasn't always a winner. Some of his birds are among those buried in the rooster graveyard, tombstones still intact. A series of hand-painted picnic tables have been spread around the grounds, which is where you'll have your morning fare. The winning choice is the banana pancakes, quite possibly the best you'll ever have. Ask for some real maple syrup to complete the experience. The banana bread is another buttery treat and goes very well with the fresh-squeezed o.j. and deliciously brewed coffee. The roosters and cats weaving their way between your feet are far more fun than nuisance, so go with the flow.
Blue Heaven
729 Thomas Street
(305) 296-8666
Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily

Lunchtime at Louie's Backyard is a more civilized experience. The main dining room at Louie's is prim and proper, just what you would expect in this graceful pink and green clapboard house with stately Doric columns. The secret, though, is to walk through the French doors at the back of the dining room and onto the large wooden deck. Three decks, to be exact, all of them leading right to the sea. The soft waves of the Atlantic are nearly lapping at your feet. Grab a table under one of the large mahoi trees, order a chilly limeade and let the Southern breeze tickle your cheeks. The setting might be enough, but if you'd like to eat while you're here, the island menu is sure to please. Start with the Boxty potato cakes, dense potato cakes which are topped with a generous slice of salmon and drizzled with a creamy apple cider sauce. The grilled fish sandwich sports a moist and tender slab of tuna steak which is lightly grilled and placed between a thick onion bun, while the herb pizza del giorno is an ever-changing, individually-sized pizzelle which is sheer delight. Eating is never a rushed affair at Louie's: it's so pretty here, no one ever wants to leave.
Louie's Backyard
700 Waddell Street
(305) 294-1061
Lunch and dinner daily; drinks until 2 AM.

Time for a shopping break? There is no shortage of stores in Key West, all of them vying for the almighty tourist dollar. The secret is in finding one which is worthy. Stay away from well-traveled Duval and head over to Whitehead Street, a quiet stretch of historic homes, galleries and cafes. Your best bet is the Kalypso Gallery, the loving endeavor of artist Carrie Disrud and her mother Jean. Carrie describes her painting as "primitive-hip," while her mother prefers to call it "art from the heart." Translation: colorful art with an island vibe on just about every imaginable surface. Floor mats, mugs, notebooks, chairs and tables are all covered with Carrie's whimsical work. Think of a calypso Mary Engelbreit. Mother Jean is a stitching whiz and creates lightweight jackets and other clothing, much of it hand-painted by her daughter. For originality and flair, the Disrud duo can't be beat.
609 Whitehead Street
(305) 296-0977
Open daily 10 AM-5 PM; closed Wednesday

Ready for a romantic dinner a deux? Head over to Keybosh, where the name is as unique as the food. It's fusion here, according to chef Paul Ashwell, or "ingredients from around the world combined in a fashion that makes sense." The setting for chef Ashwell's seductive cuisine is a smallish room with smooth yellow walls and simple, modern lines. Soft lighting illuminates tables covered with crisp white linens and paired with graceful wicker wing chairs. A sleek curve of a bar anchors the far end of the room. The bounty of Key West is put to good use at Keybosh, so you're likely to see lots of tropical fruit salsas and fresh local fish on the menu. Start your meal with the watercress salad with rum-sugared pecans, apples and chunks of gorgonzola cheese or the chilled prawns, which are served with a chayote-jicama salad and a sweet mango vinaigrette. The chef's favorite appetizer is the "devils on horseback," garlic-stuffed dates which are wrapped with bacon and served with a soy-ginger dipping sauce. Continue with the Jamaican jerk-rubbed pork loin chop with maple sugar-whipped yams and sauteed greens. This huge pork chop is perfectly cooked and full of flavor. The Soul Mama seafood soup is a coconut milk and lime bouillabaise which is filled with "jewels of the sea." These jewels sparkle in their broth and proceed to melt in your mouth. Finish your meal with the chocolate fantasy, a mousse-like confection which will leave you sated and elated. The food at Keybosh is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate, which means that this year-old restaurant will soon be one of the hottest tables in town.
601 Duval Street (entrance around the corner on Southard Street)
(305) 294-2005
Open for dinner seven nights a week

All of this activity need not take place in one day. You'll probably enjoy it a lot more if you spread it over the course of several days. That will give you time to do a little of something or much of nothing, which is just about right on breezy, easy Key West.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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