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Key West Part 1: I Just Can't Quit These Damn Chickens

"Winter sucks -- so let's get the hell outta here!" That was our rallying cry as we boarded a plane bound for Key West on a blizzardy Friday morning in January. Ahhh, Key West. The very words conjure up images of swaying palms and pina coladas, shady gardens and lazy porch fans.

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Long a haven for artists, writers, musicians, and secessionists, this tiny tropical paradise is famous for its Cuban influence, perfectly preserved historic district, and offbeat charm, including a multitude of six-toed cats and feral chickens.

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And yet, below the island's genteel if funky exterior lurks the seedy underbelly of the beast: Duval Street. A cacophony of t-shirt shops, tour operators, street artists, and con artists, Duval Street is best known for its wild, anything-goes bar scene and lax open-container laws, which lend the island a drunken depraved debauched laid-back air.

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I, of course, do not approve of such shenanigans, and neither does Angel.

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On this visit we stayed at the Paradise Inn, a name often applied to accommodations that almost always turns out to be unintentionally ironic. Thankfully in the case of Key West's Paradise Inn it's truthful, if a bit goading to those of us from the Great North.

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Our first order of business after checking in was to rent bikes from Eaton Bikes, the shop we like to use thanks to their friendly service and fair prices. Unfortunately the only bikes they had available were black, which were very obviously not pink or turquoise, so Angel mollified me by prettying mine up a bit.

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Later, after I'd accidentally almost mowed down a few unsuspecting pedestrians, we returned to the shop to see if I could get a bell to warn others of impending doom. The owner, Chris, explained that the shop doesn't like to equip the rental bikes with bells because the constant dinging drives the locals nuts. "Why do you need a bell to warn people anyway?" he asked. "You're from New York. Can't you just scream obscenities at them?" When I explained that I was trying out a new, relaxed, island-y Tracey, he kindly gave me a bell for free.

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In return, I dinged that bell about a million times a day, screaming out "CHRIS AT EATON BIKES SAYS HELLO!!!!" at anyone who would listen. Just kidding! I was actually very restrained with the use of the bell, save for imminent death. Which amounted to just a few hundred times a day.

As has become our tradition, lunch on our first day on the island was in the garden at Kelly's Caribbean, which is housed in the former headquarters of Pan American Airlines. Nothing conjures up visions of delicious food like airplanes!

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Kelly's was once owned by actress Kelly McGillis of "Top Gun" fame. Of course, we'd still frequent this place if it was owned by a toothless ex-con, as long as they still served these:

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This was our ninth visit to the island, so this time we decided to do something new, something different, something wild and crazy that we've never done before in Key West -- no easy feat on an island known for its enlightened stance on alcohol and public nudity.

So we went on a house-and-garden tour. Wait, what were YOU thinking? You really need to get your mind out of the gutter. Heh-heh.

A house tour usually consists of tramping through a stranger's house and snarkily critiquing all of their art, design, and decor choices. In this case, however, the tour of these exquisite homes consisted of several of the five stages of grief: denial ("Seriously, WHO on earth owns such a gorgeous house?!"); anger ("These lucky bastards probably don't even appreciate this house!"); depression ("It's hopeless; I'll never have a house like this!"); and acceptance ("I'll never have a house like this. Ever.").

1108 Southard Street
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631 United Street
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425 Caroline Street
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This last house is owned by country star Kenny Chesney, who purchased the house but never even moved in before deciding that it wasn't private enough and putting it back on the market. Which proves that what he's really hiding under that ever-present cowboy hat is not baldness, but lack of brains.

Right before we boarded the open-air Conch Train to take us from house to house, a mini-hurricane descended, cold and wet and windy, with the added bonus of turning my hair into something resembling a cross between a wet mop and blonde Silly String. But I soldiered on, and I'm glad I did, because otherwise I'd never have gotten to see The World's Most Awesome Shower.

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By the end of the house tour the temperature had dropped to the low 50s, so we decided to grab dinner at the nearest restaurant and call it a night. That turned out to be El Meson de Pepe, which is generally regarded as the touristy version of one of our favorite restaurants, the excellent Cuban spot El Siboney. Luckily for us, a large pitcher of El Meson's sangria turned what would have been an okay meal into an okay-but-giggly one.

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Angel ordered a sampler plate, with ropa vieja, shredded pork, and picadillo. Unfortunately, the picadillo was studded with raisins -- neither my nor Angel's favorite -- which are very adept at masquerading as black beans to get people to eat them. Sneaky little buggers.

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Despite the lovely homes featured on the house tour, I'm really holding out for one of these. Donations being accepted now at 1-800-FAT-CHANCE.

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For now, though, I really can't complain (not that that ever stops me): Two years ago we took the plunge and bought a small condo in the Casa Marina neighborhood of Old Town, with the intention of renting it out for now and using it ourselves once we can finally afford to retire (projected date: 2098).

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It was either that or pay the college tuition for the kids we don't have, which is how we sold this cockamamie idea to our financial planner.

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One of the things that we like best about the condo is its proximity to the Southermost Beach Cafe, one of our favorite casual lunch spots.

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Situated right on the sand, Southermost has an inexpensive lunch menu and boasts a drink list longer than Angel's . . . arm. This is one of their specialty drinks, the Sunkiss, which contains three different rums as well as pina colada/strawberry/passion fruit/mango mixes. A few of these and you will be drunk/trashed/wasted/blitzed.

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I always order the Chef's salad, partly because green vegetables are a nice shock to the system after several days in Key West, and partly because of the Caribbean vinaigrette dressing, which is sweet, tart, mustardy, and highly addictive.

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Angel decided on the fresh catch of the day, a blackened mahi-mahi sandwich with batter-dipped fries. There's a vegetable in there somewhere . . . I think.

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Finally, we split an order of conch fritters, which are really just an excuse to eat some fried dough. These came with a delicious sweet & spicy chili sauce.

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Near the restrooms is a huge map in which people stick pins indicating where they're visiting from. I wanted to stick a pin in Antarctica just to shake things up, but in the end I'm just a big conformist.

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One thing that we've noticed over the years is that folks in Key West adore their pets, and often go out of their way to make life easier for them. Like this little kitty door/staircase, for example. Because everyone knows that cats are terrible at jumping.

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When a beloved pet occasionally goes missing, an island-wide campaign must be undertaken to find him. Some are fortunately easier to identify than others.

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Hard to believe they got such a clear picture of him, huh?

This is Pickles. He is not currently missing, but when you leave a dog that cute alone in a car with the windows down, don't come crying to me when he ends up in my suitcase.

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Even the strays in Key West are pretty spoiled.

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On Sunday it was a bit chilly, so we scrapped our plans for brunch on the water and instead headed over to Martin's on Duval Street. Okay, I'm lying. It wasn't "a bit chilly." It was cold. Really cold. Practically freezing, by Key West standards.

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Martin's is owned by a couple of Germans (who know a thing or two about cold weather), who are so blond and blue-eyed and chiseled that the rest of us (okay, me) are left feeling like amorphous blobs of dubious national origin.

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Angel and I both ordered the lobster benedict, which is served with steamed spinach and a thick, lemony hollandaise that was so good that we had no choice but to order the German bread to mop it all up.

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And even less choice but to wash it all down with mimosas.

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German or not, Key Westers aren't typically shy about expressing themselves, whether that takes the form of bumper stickers, signs, t-shirts . . .

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. . . or a gigantic replica of the tiki idol in that really scary episode of "The Brady Bunch."

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Or this piece of sh . . . artistic expression. If nothing else, it's sure to keep those annoying trick-or-treaters away at Halloween.

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Now that's alot of pot.

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Later that night we biked over to Abbondanza, a romantic little trattoria that's a bit off the beaten path (that term being relative on an island that's all of 4.2 square miles) and has the best meatballs in town.

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Now, you might think it strange that we went out for meatballs on a tropical island known for its seafood, but that's because you've probably never had the meatballs at Abbondanza. These tender, garlicky little orbs are just the thing to replenish you after a day spent lazing around, and let's face it: Being thin is nice, but stuffing your face full of meatballs is even nicer.

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I fought the meatballs and the meatballs won.

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One of the things that we've always loved about the island is that it is a study in contrasts, the rich rubbing elbows with the poor; the literary-minded mingling with the simple-minded; the type who'd belong to a yacht club . . . being the same type who'd attach gigantic bull horns to his Jeep.

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Me? I'm the type who'd write a trip report but only publish half of it. Part 2 to come is now posted! Find it here: www.traceyg.travellerspoint.com/24/

Posted by TraceyG 10:39 Archived in USA Tagged key_west casa_marina florida_keys southernmost_beach_cafe

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Comments

Tracey... you've done it again! My wife and I have been pondering a trip to Key West for quite some time, and now you've managed to convince us that pondering is a huge waste of time. Thanks for another great read. Zabar

by Zabar

Hmm, I hope that means you're GOING to Key West, not that you've ruled it out? ;)

by TraceyG

You betcha!

by Zabar

Once again "loved it" - can't wait for part 2. When are you coming back to Anguilla?

by Suzie

"Being thin is nice, but stuffing your face full of meatballs is even nicer"

So very, very true.

by Peter

We're going back in May for our seventh trip. What a great way to get us psyched. Can't wait for Pt2!

by Rebecca

Dear Tracey:
I wrote the following homage to your excellent blog about Key West and posted it on the Anguilla Forum of TripAdvisor. Ithought that you'd enjoy knowing just how much your writing talent (and Angel's photographic skill) are appreciated. Zabar
http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g147238-i388-k4206405-Escape_From_New_York_by_TraceyG-Anguilla.html

by Zabar

Zabar, you are way too kind! I really enjoy putting these posts together (toting around a camera is a great way to meet people!) and am thrilled that you and others are enjoying it too!

For the record, I take all of the photographs on the blog, save for the ones of myself (obviously) and a very small handful of Angel's that I "allow" to sneak in on occasion! We have an ongoing friendly rivalry about who's the better photographer, so I feel compelled to set the record straight! :)

by TraceyG

Awesome, as usual! Had a wonderful time reading about KW through your eyes.

by Emily

Wonderful article....
but I saw lots of beaches and boats ...

by Rhmyers

Great article.
Having been to the keys, but never to Key West, I now realize what a mistake that was. Thanks for a very informative (and humorous) description of a strange, odd, and wonderful place.

by Calcruzer (Gary)

Great article. I want to run away from the freezing cold of the winter but I can't.. Gotta work...
Regards

Lisa, Waldorf Hotel London
http://www.waldorfhilton.co.uk

by Lisa

Once again, a laugh out loud trip report. Thanks again for the entertainment.

by Charlene Fowles

Loved you writing, loved your pics, keep on going at it, because it is too good to give up!
P.S. I’m on work-time, don’t tell my boss!

by Judi

I haven't been back to Key West since 1995, it doesn't seemed to have changed too much. I loved it then, it was called Key Weird or Gay West back then. I really enjoyed your pics, it brought fond memories back. Glenice (Australia)

by Glenice

Hi Tracey,
I visited Miami in '05 and we drove down to Key West, but were concerned about the weather and the drive back so we didn't make it. Your witty commentary and spectacular photos inspire me to make the trip down there. Currently on holidays in Queensland, Australia so it'll have to be later, but I feel inspired. Looking forward to reading Part 2. Cheers B

by Bettina

Fantastic post and some amazing photos, glad you're having such a good time!

by Becky

Wicked review/post - thanks Tracey. Can't wait to visit the Keys!

by max woof

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