Latitudes Sunset Key, Key West Florida
We’re setting sail for Key West, Florida to explore the city’s funky charm, Spanish history, Bahamian and Cuban culture, quirky locals and, of course, fine Floridian cuisine.
Key West’s charm doesn’t lie solely with its gorgeous beaches and proximity to Cuba, but also with its inhabitants. From ghosts to wild chickens and cats with extra appendages, Key West is filled with hosts that will greet you with open arms and a glass of rum.
Florida may or may not be considered Southern, but much like the rest of the South, it is rife with rich history. The Native American people of Florida’s southwestern coast, known as the Calusa, once inhabited the Keys, living off seafood and cultivating papayas. Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de León is believed to have reached Florida in St. Augustine as he was searching for the “Fountain of Youth” and was the first European to reach Key West in 1521.
Much later, in 1982, the city of Key West declared its "independence" and renamed itself the Conch Republic in a protest over a United States Border Patrol blockade, which halted tourism for a city that could only survive with visitors.
Key West is an island home to transplants from across the country, but especially those from Southern states, who went on vacation, became enamored with the city’s charm, never to return to their home state. Those born in Key West are referred to as “salt water conch,” while those who trade in suburbia for a taste of the pirate life are called “fresh water conch.” If the pirate life is for you, then you’re in luck!
What to eat and drinkForty-two bridges connect Key West to the mainland, and you can conquer each while driving along the Overseas Highway. A stop in for a waterside lunch at Key Largo’s most famous dive, Alabama Jacks, for all things fried seafood (especially its famed conch fritters) is a must if you want to experience the “Keys life” even before you arrive in Key West.
Take a trolley ride along Duval Street, then head to brunch at Blue Heaven, where you can pet friendly polydactyl cats from The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, grab a strong but affordable cocktail at the bar, and have a delicious lobster eggs Benedict. Pro tip: Add avocado and tomato — you’ll thank me later. Finish off your meal with a slice of Key lime pie topped with a sky-high meringue. The palm tree and tropical flower-canopied atmosphere of this local haunt is one you’ll fall in love with, especially when you’re listening to the local musicians play music as intoxicating as your beverage.
A local favorite you can also find on Duval Street, Mangoes is the restaurant to visit for a beautiful patio and taste of the Caribbean, but if you’re in the mood for a lavish and romantic dinner, Latitudes is your best bet. You’ll board a boat and be transported to an island paradise to dine on award-winning fare while enjoying an unparalleled sunset view.
If you haven’t had your fill of Key lime pie at Kermit’s on Duval just yet, or you want something portable enough to eat while walking, you need to try the city’s new favorite: Cupcake Sushi. No — there aren’t any fish in these delectable, unique dessert bites, but there are 30 different flavors, ranging from Key lime to chocolate cheesecake with ganache and nuts, all artfully and meticulously decorated.
Whether you’re visiting for Spring break, Fantasy Fest, Key West Pride, a friend’s beachside nuptials or just to get away, you’re probably going to be drinking, and you’re probably going to be doing it on Duval Street. A couple must-visit bars include the local favorite, The Green Parrot, for live music and free popcorn, and Sloppy Joe’s, which first opened on December 5, 1933 — the day Prohibition was repealed. It is also said to be home to its namesake sandwich.
Where to play
Southern Kitchen’s resident buyer and former Key West resident, Josh Conner, recommended Fort Zachary Taylor State Park beach as more beautiful than its rowdier counterpart, Smathers Beach, and on our recent visit, boy did it deliver. If you’re looking for a family-friendly, serene beach experience with picnic tables a-plenty, Fort Zach is your spot. If you’re more apt to want to play watersports — Smathers should be your pick.
Once you’ve had your fill of brunch and the beach, rent a Vespa and zoom over to Mallory Square to shop for souvenirs, listen to local musicians and eat street food. Any kids you’re toting around will be in awe of the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory and utterly spooked by the Ghosts and Gravestones tour. Then you can squeeze in some education at The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum and end your day of activities by getting an Instagram pic in at the most photographed spot in Key West: the Southernmost Point Buoy. This anchored concrete buoy erected in 1983 marks the southernmost point in the continental United States and is as close as you’ll get to Cuba on U.S. soil. If this experience has you craving a Cuban sandwich — you’re not alone.
Where to stay
Island life in Key West means you’ll be greeted with hospitality as soon as you arrive. As location is “key,” you’ll find a good choice of where to stay at The Mermaid & The Alligator, a lovely 1904 Victorian home turned bed and breakfast in the heart of Old Town Key West. There, you’ll want to explore the lush grounds, take a dip in the pool and have a full breakfast.
If you don’t want to stay in one of Key West’s many charming B&Bs you can rent a house boat and experience life on the high seas!
Once you’ve made your way back home (if you decided to leave at all), you can still remember your vacation with each sip of your homemade piña colada or Whiski-Tiki Cocktail.
Don’t take our (or Jimmy Buffet’s) word for it — go experience this paradise yourself.
Photo credit (hero): Latitudes Sunset Key Facebook
Photo credit (wild chickens): msmithphoto, Flickr
Photo credit (Blue Heaven): Knightime05, TripAdvisor
Photo credit (cat): Stephen Patis, Facebook
Photo credit (Southernmost Point): Markus around the world, Flickr