Thursday, March 1, 2012

Key West

My mom and I have returned from our crazy two-day trip to the southernmost island in the continental U.S.! We've both always wanted to try the high-speed passenger ferry that runs from Fort Myers Beach to Key West. So on Tuesday morning we got up super-early, drove more than two hours to Fort Myers and caught the boat for the three-hour ride.

My conclusion: Using the ferry is easier than driving, but Key West is still a heck of a long way away. We left home at 4 a.m. on Tuesday and didn't get back until 1 a.m. this morning. I am definitely going to need a nap today.

Having said that, though, we had a great time. We disembarked right at lunchtime on Tuesday, and stopped near the dock for some excellent seafood at Turtle Kraals, which is named for the pens where fishermen used to corral sea turtles. (Back when hunting them was legal -- shudder.) We wandered up and down Duval Street before checking in to our motel, and then we wandered some more.

I dragged my poor 74-year-old mom all over that island. We saw the amazing cemetery, the Bahamian neighborhood and sunset at Mallory Square. We had a gin & tonic on the roof of the downtown La Concha Hotel, which I've never done in all the years I've visited. We ate at El Siboney, my favorite Cuban restaurant on the planet, and at Blue Heaven, which has a huge reputation and an undeniably great tropical courtyard with lots of ambience. We took a trolley tour that looped all the way around the island, which was a perfect way for mom to see all of Key West.

We saw Hemingway's house, the aquarium, President Truman's "little white house," the lighthouse and other attractions -- from the outside, that is, since my mom's rule is not to pay admission for what she can see from the street. And we walked around Fort Zachary Taylor, a pre-Civil War fortification on the island's southwest corner with cannons, thick concrete walls and a moat, all on a remote beachfront with casuarina trees and crystalline blue-green water.

I also had chocolate-covered frozen key lime pie on a stick, which is a great idea.

It's very hard for me to walk around Key West and not miss the old days. I've been going there since 1985, and back then, it was a quaint, bohemian place -- also a traditional gay haven. It was hard to get to, and that kept most people away.

Over the last 15 years or so, though, cruise ships have started docking in Key West and ferry service has made the island more accessible. (When we were there, two big Carnival cruise ships were in port, no doubt disgorging hundreds and hundreds of passengers.) The changes to the island have been undeniable -- the tourists tend to be much older now, and there are many, many more of them. There are still gay guesthouses and at least one prominent gay bar, but otherwise I saw very little evidence of Key West's former status as a gay vacation mecca. And while there are local artists and craftsmen (and -women) along Duval Street, there's also a Banana Republic, a Starbucks and a lot of tourist schlock.

I'm afraid I probably bored my mom to tears pointing out all the places I'd been on past visits with my friends Kevin, Suzanne and Robert. Many other places are gone, closed or irreparably changed for the worst.

But oh well. Key West is still a lot of fun. It's just not like it was.

(Photos: A coconut on an Old Town street, a wall near the Southernmost Point, a discarded TV in Bahama Village, and a colorful wall which you might recognize if you have a really, really good memory.)


  1. My parents went to Key West on their honeymoon in 1963. Hmmm - was it a gay mecca then? I wonder what in the world they thought of it! I'll have to ask my dad when I see him this weekend :)

  2. It sounds like a wonderful trip, and I really admire your photos -- they're unique and give such a great sense of place. Thank you for this travel montage!

  3. So glad we will always have our memories. I wish I was there right now flying a kite with you.

  4. Oh my I can't begin to tell you how envious I am. I adore Key West. I haven't. Een there in years, since I moved out of FL. I love what a sleepy town it was. I guess there is less of that now.

    Gay Mecca I guess, example Fantasy Fest. Not that it is a LGBT event. Sadly I never got to go. It heard it was TONS of fun. Did you ever go?

    It was always a 4hr drive for me. I think I spent more time in Key Largo, only a 45 min drive but there is something special about Key West. :)

    Ms. M

  5. Bug: I think its status as a gay mecca came mainly after the gay liberation movement, but even in the '60s a lot of gay writers lived there, like Tennessee Williams and James Leo Herlihy.

    Thanks, Elizabeth!

    I wish you'd been there to fly a kite with me, Suzanne -- to be followed by some thrifting and a stop at the used book store! LOL!!

    Ms. M: I never went to Fantasy Fest. I just never got down there at that time of year. Key West might still be sleepier in summer -- this is high season, after all.

  6. Hi Steve,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blog posts about Fort Myers Beach share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you :)