If your idea of Florida is the nightlife and beaches of Miami or the adrenaline-charged rides of Orlando and that’s it, think again. According to the locals of the Florida Keys, and many US citizens who’ve visited the Keys once, fell madly in love with the place and never looked back, you have to head slightly further south to get to the real Florida.
After six days exploring the quirks of Key Largo right down to Key West, it’s safe to say I’ve caught more than a little ‘Keys disease’. Even though I loved every stop along the way – including kayaking through mangroves in Big Pine Key and visiting the intriguingly historic Pigeon Key, an island Arnie Schwarzenegger once tried to buy – it was Key West that really stole my heart. As you drive into the coconut palm fringed Key West, the sign reads ‘Welcome to Paradise’ and for once it wasn’t just an overly optimistic road sign.
If you fancy catching a bit of ‘Keys disease’ for yourself, here are my top 5 things to do in Key West, in no order:
1. Watch the sunset in Mallory Square – every night for 365 days a year, they celebrate the sunset in Key West.
The square is thronged with locals and holidaymakers and the pier becomes the place to be as everyone grabs a seat for the stunning sunset. The cast is a motley crew of characters: I saw a little girl pouring her heart into a rendition of the national anthem, a man singing while his dog (wearing shorts, no less) collected dollars, a guy strapping himself into a straitjacket and doing a Houdini to get out of it, a henna tattoo artist, a fire-eater, a fortune teller and stalls hocking handmade jewellery alongside key lime flavoured body scrubs. The party atmosphere is infectious and even if your sunset is clouded over, you’ll have a good time.
There’s also a sunset and dolphin watching cruise aboard a boat called Fury. Ignore the name, the cruise is pure relaxation. Dolphins are spotted 98% of the time and, unlike Ireland’s much-loved Fungie, Florida’s dolphins stay at a safe distance but are still magical to watch. After dolphin watching, you can snorkel and see the purplish coral or follow my lead and just chill out with a generous glass of bubbly and watch the sunset. Actual bliss.
2. Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum – visiting the home of quintessential American writer Hemingway is top of the list for many visitors to Key West. The guides are diehard Hemingway fans who have encyclopaedic knowledge of the writer and inside, it’s like briefly stepping into the world that inspired classics like ‘To Have and Have Not’ during Hemingway’s ten year tenure in the Keys. The walls are awash with portraits of the writer and my personal favourite was the room with Hemingway’s typewriter on the table, as though he’s momentarily popped out for inspiration.
Visitors are all but outnumbered by six-toed feline friends who prowl the rich green gardens and the forty polydactyl cats who live here are almost as much of an attraction as the famous author. To really make Hemingway proud, go to Sloppy Joe’s for a cocktail. “Papa” adorns every wall and the drinks are strong. Thumbs up.
3. Harry Truman’s Little White House – this former naval house became a hideaway for President Truman and has hosted seven US presidents to date. I have to confess, as someone who knows very little about US heads of state, I was a little ambivalent about visiting this house but after the guided tour I was pleasantly surprised. The Little White House has been kept exactly like it was in the Truman heyday, right down to the wallpaper and the poker table with Cuban cigar holders. The guided tour gives you a real sense of Truman as a person, an unassuming politician from Missouri who ended up in the White House and manages to redeem him from being one of the least popular presidents in history to citing his achievements. It’s surrounded by lush gardens, complete with Key West’s roaming chickens, so it’s easy to see why this became Truman’s island escape and visited by 7 US presidents over the years.
4. Southernmost point – Next stop: Cuba! One of the most photographed Florida Keys landmarks is of course the Southernmost point in the US marker. You see it on everything from t shirts to fridge magnets and yes, it’s a bit of an obvious one but the landmark and the expansive ocean with nothing on the horizon, is a reminder that you’re 90 miles from Cuba and also feels a world away from the rest of the States. The queues to be snapped at this landmark are long so get there early.
5. Robert the Doll – Who wants to see the original inspiration for Chucky? Anyone? Anyone at all? When you’re in Key West even the most superstitious soul can’t skip a trip to see Robert the Doll, the oldest toy in town. Don’t be fooled by the innocuous sounding name – Robert is a very bold boy and, as the many repentant letters on the walls of the Fort East Martello Museum claim, this doll is full of mischief. Think broken legs, lost luggage, missing cameras, you name it and Robert’s caused it. Allegedly. According to the tour guide, all you have to do to avoid bad juju is say hi to him and ask him politely before you Instagram him. Spooky stuff or publicity stunt? You decide. If you’re brave enough…
Check out more Key West snaps here (no pics of Robert because I’m a superstitious scaredy cat):
Bits ‘n pieces:
Stay: Key Lime Inn, Key West – www.historickeywestinns.com
Getting there: I flew with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to Miami. Prices start from £240 plus £357.65 tax. Visit www.virgin-atlantic.com.
If you want to find out more about what to see and do in the Florida Keys, go to www.fla–keys.co.uk.