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Key West: 12 ways to make the most of a weekend visit
Hospitality is the way of life in Key West. The generous reception of guests dates back to the 1820s when ship salvagers and Cuban cigarmakers settled on the island. In more recent times, Key West has been both a sanctuary for aging hippies in Margaritaville and a popular destination on the gay circuit.
The island, which has a full-time population of 28,000, offers a combination of the highbrow and the low and an artistic tradition reaching from Ernest Hemingway to Jimmy Buffett. And somehow the mix works.
Friday, 4 p.m.
1. Culture and Cats
If you insist on education while on vacation, make your first stop the Hemingway Home and Museum, 907 Whitehead St., 305-294-1136. The $10 admission charge includes a half-hour tour and innuendo about Hemingway, who owned the house from 1931 until his death in 1961. The Spanish Colonial house and the lush grounds are inhabited by more than 60 cats with names such as James Joyce and Emily Dickinson. Some of them have six toes, which sailors once thought was a sign of good luck.
2. A Toast to the Sun
Follow the crowd to Mallory Square, where people gather to observe the last minutes of daylight. Besides the sunset, other sights are the jugglers and animal trainers performing for tips, vacationing families in matching attire and retirees from cruise ships that have docked for the day. The Sunset Pier Bar & Grill at the Ocean Key Resort, 0 Duval St., 305-296-7701, offers snacks, light dining and tropical libations such as frozen pina coladas ($7).
3. Island Fusion
Of the many restaurants, there is no safer bet than Alice's at the La Te Da Hotel and Bar, 1125 Duval St. Start with the Cajun spring rolls with hot and sour sauce ($9.75) or the Southwestern pot stickers with Cuervo salsa ($7.75). For the main course, try the Tahitian pan-roasted chicken served over wild-mushroom-studded mashed potatoes ($18.95). If traditional Italian is more your style, try the inexpensive and very dependable Mangia Mangia, 900 Southard St.
Saturday, 8:30 a.m.
4. A Rustic Breakfast
Blue Heaven, 305 Petronia St., is a favorite of locals and tourists alike, but Key West is a sleepy town, so any pre-9 a.m. arrival (the restaurant opens at 8) might be early enough to shorten the wait for a table. The outdoor setting features dirt floors, with chickens, roosters and cats walking about. A sign offers showers in a thatch stall, $1 to shower and $2 to watch. Dishes include pancakes ($6.25) with bananas, pecans or blueberries, and seafood Benedict ($10.75) with sauteed mahi-mahi.
5. Beaches or Birthday Suits
Combine a quest for culture with a chance to relax by visiting the Fort Zachary Taylor State Historic Site, at the end of Southard Street, admission $1.50 for pedestrians and cyclists, $5 for vehicles with two passengers. Put in some tan time on the white-sand beach or take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean, but mind the gravelly first few steps in. Tours of the fort, which was built in 1845 and overlooks both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, are at noon and 2 p.m. For a more complete tan, visit the clothing-optional sun deck at the Atlantic Shores Resort, 510 South St., but beware the live Web cam.
6. Tasty Fortifications
After sunning, swimming, touring or ogling, energize yourself for an afternoon shopping expedition with lunch at Magnolia's, 724 Duval St. Rehydrate with a tall bottomless glass of iced tea ($1.50) and enjoy a fried shrimp po' boy ($7.95). In the mood for a burger? The cook will prepare it the way you like it with accents such as caviar, fried eggs or jalapeno.
7. Power Shopping
You cannot swing a purse on Duval Street without hitting a T-shirt shop. Gleefully avoid them all. For clothing and gifts ( such as $30 "Evil/Queen" cuff links), step into Fast Buck Freddie's, 500 Duval St. Or you can view -- and purchase -- the work of local artists such as Egg at the Guild Hall Gallery, 614 Duval St. Egg's sculptured creatures, made of recycled newspapers, have whimsical expressions. For edible Key lime souvenirs to take to those suffering back home, drop in on the Key West Candy Co., 810 Duval St., 305-292-1496.
8. Culinary Decadence
The food at Seven Fish, 632 Olivia St., is so good and in such demand that making a dinner reservation before arriving in Key West is a smart move. In addition to comfort foods such as meatloaf, there are fish specials, dependent on the season and the catch of the day. One of the best appetizers is the tropical shrimp salsa with chili-lime chips ($7.50), and a favorite entree is the banana chicken with caramelized walnuts ($15). The brownie with ice cream and toasted coconut ($7) is divine.
9. Dancing and Dollars
Calling it an early night is not allowed. There are plenty of saloons up and down Duval Street that feature live bands and dancing, including boisterous Sloppy Joe's, 201 Duval St., where Ernest Hemingway was said to have enjoyed a cocktail or three. On the gayer end of Duval -- past, say, Fleming Street -- the music becomes less blues-and-jazz and more dance-and-disco. Try Aqua, 711 Duval St., for dancing. There is a $3 cover charge on Fridays and Saturdays for the drag show. The sprawling Bourbon Street Pub, 724 Duval St., has large screens showing music videos and, after 10 p.m., an assortment of go-go men. Keep your $1 bills ready.
Sunday, 9 a.m.
10. Morning Caffeine
Start the day at the Croissants de France Bakery and Cafe, 816 Duval St., for coffee and a selection of pastries with a variety of fillings, as well as egg and vegetable dishes ($2.25 to $9.75).
11. Presidential Card Tricks
One of the remaining must-sees is the Little White House, 111 Front St., that was once a home to President Harry Truman. A highlight of the $10 guided tour is a mahogany dining table with a removable top that hides a poker table.
12. Graveside Wisdom
The island's hard coral rock forced the creation of the above-ground Key West Cemetery at Margaret and Angela streets. Its 19 acres are now somewhat overgrown and home to stray roosters. The memorials are a mix of the historic (a tribute to the Cubans who died in the 1868 revolution) and the humorous -- try to find the tombstone that reads, "I told you I was sick."