Key West Shines: So much to see, do, enjoy in the Southernmost Point in the U.S.

Sat. December 16, 2017 12:00 AM
by Ross Forman

Key West lived up to everything I thought, or at least hoped, it would be.

My first visit to the Florida island in early-December won't be my last, no chance.

I saw and experienced some of what makes Key West a mix of magic and mystery, sunshine and shenanigans, excitement and energy.

Key West has been, for the past few years, one of the only places in the U.S. that I had never visited but really wanted to experience. Well, after four days, three nights and several Pina coladas, I'm hooked, ready to return!

Matt Hon is the executive director of the Key West Business Guild. I think he put it best:

"We are an island surrounded by beautiful blue/green water, (filled with) beautiful sea life. The average temperature is 77 degrees. The warmest it has ever gotten on the island is 97 degrees, the coldest (was) 48 degrees," he said. "We have wonderful summertime weather all year long. The island offers a diverse range of restaurants with delicious food, (along with) fabulous art galleries and theaters. (There are) retail stores to find unique gifts, and a variety of historic sites to see, (plus) nice beaches (on which) to relax and catch some rays.

"It's a small island, only two miles by four miles, so (there's) no need for a car. It is the perfect place to relax, chill out and re-energize. It's a beautiful little island, a Caribbean paradise."

One place I really wanted to see, particularly for a selfie, was the supersized Southernmost Point Buoy, marking the southernmost point in the continental United States, the lowest latitude land of contiguous North American States.

The large painted buoy was established as a tourist attraction in 1983 and is now one of the most-visited and photographed attractions in the U.S. I had to wait about 10 minutes, in a line of about 20. Worth it, though.

The southernmost point was originally marked with a small sign before the city erected the now famous concrete buoy.

Another must-see spot in Key West is, Duval Street, a famous downtown commercial street, running north and south from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean, just over a mile in length and named for William Pope Duval, the first territorial governor of Florida.

"Duval Street is a place where you can find everything," Hon said. "And right in the middle of Duval Street is where you find our rainbow crosswalks, at the corner of Petronia and Duval (Streets) – probably the best spot in the world to people-watch."

Be sure to hit Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe on Duval Street for the chocolate-covered key lime pie bars on a stick. One word: yum!

Duval Street also is the home to Bourbon St. Pub, which is Key West's original video bar. There were plenty of go-go dancers, some of whom are not afraid to reveal ...everything. There also is a male-only, clothing-optional garden bar with a pool and Jacuzzi. Two private rooftops lead to, well, just about anything and everything you can imagine.

Bourbon St. Pub also is the New Year's Eve home for the annual Shoe Drop, featuring drag sensation Sushi

"Thousands gather on Duval Street to witness the best 'New Year's Eve Drop'," Hon said.

United Airlines has a daily nonstop flight to Key West from Chicago, yet my trip was on American Airlines via Miami. So the first flight is about three hours, and then 30 minutes in a smaller plane into Key West. Uber is available at the airport and the wait is, oh, maybe two minutes – not the 10-plus minutes it can be while waiting at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

My first dinner in Key West was, quite possibly, my favorite. Went to AZUR Restaurant, featuring Mediterranean specialties, with seating inside or out on the terrace. Must try the gnocchi, particularly the Toasted Gnocchi – and that's from someone who isn't much of a pasta eater. It was good, really good. The Yellow Tail Snapper was great, too. Kudos to Chef Mike Mosi, plus Drew and Jose.

For breakfast in Key West, you must hit Blue Heaven. Must! The Blue Heaven Benedicts were perfect, with great-tasting, large-servings of lobster. Enjoy the delicious banana bread and the pineapple pancakes were surprisingly good and quite large.

But nothing compares size-wise to their key lime pie, made with a buttery graham cracker crust, fresh-squeezed lime juice, sweetened condensed milk and lots of meringue. Lots and lots of meringue. Open your phone when it's delivered to the table; you'll want to take a picture.

For food and a view (on the waterfront), be sure to hit Turtle Kraals. Be sure to enjoy the Guacamole Molcajete appetizer and the tacos were plentiful.

Key West isn't just for food; it's about the drinks too. I had several Pina coladas, and not a bad one anywhere on the island.

Rum is the word to remember in Key West, and nothing or nowhere is better for that than at Papa's Pilar Distillery.

Papa's Pilar Rum – in both Dark and Blonde expressions – is a high-end sipping rum inspired by, and named after, Ernest Hemingway.

Be sure to hit the short, but very informative, tour.

Rum tasting is complimentary, along with a boatload of stories and photos of Hemingway.

The Hemingway family donates 100 percent of their profits from Papa's Pilar to charity. Papa's Pilar works with charitable foundations and causes that also serve Hemingway's legacy, creating awareness around local and regional organizations.

Another stop on this island that I'd suggest is, Sloan's Key West Ghost Hunt, which are interactive tours, featuring unusual and entertaining guides and tours created by renowned paranormal investigator and author, David L. Sloan.

Key West is consistently ranked as one of the most haunted cities in the U.S., and I'll admit it was ...chilling, for lack of a better term, as we walked around the city, looking for ghosts, or at least some messages from the mysterious.

Key West has a variety of hotels for vacationers, including the mega high-end Santa Maria Suites Hotel which could set you back about $1,000 for one night of pampering. I'd suggest, NYAH, which stands for Not Your Average Hotels.

First off, NYAH rooms have bunk beds. Yes, bunk beds. At least they can be bunk beds. Or, they can easily be converted to different bed types, which revise the room size, shape and look.

There are multiple pools and a hot-tub at NYAH, plus complimentary breakfast and evening snacks, too. Friendly, helpful staff at NYAH is a plus, along with bicycles that can be used to get around town. Or it's an easy, seven-minute walk from NYAH to Duval Street.

Key West is a must-visit destination – for the sunshine, relaxation, incredible food and easy-going way of life.

Key West, I will be back, soon.