We had a family holiday in Key West - not normally viewed as a family destination - we found there was so much for children to do and see here.
by Joy S on July 12, 2011
The Florida Keys is a chain of 34 subtropical islands strung along the Overseas Highway. The Keys are a paradise for those who love the outdoor life - snorkelling, fishing and diving dominate. For many people, the various Keys on the way down from Miami are only stops on the way to Key West.Key West is the southernmost point of the Continental USA. It dangles right at the end of the Overseas Highway - a 113 mile highway with 42 bridges which skims the ocean. It was once the richest town in America, and is now the final dot of North America before miles and miles of ocean. It has a reputation as being eccentric, wacky, carefree and bohemian. This is all definitely true. It is the perfect place for a holiday. It has vibrant, Caribbean style streets and lots and lots of lively bars. All this and the most spectacular sunsets make it quite unlike anywhere I have ever been to.Key West is a real melting pot of different cultures - Caribbean, Latin American and US culture all mixed together. Everyone who lives here is given a title - conchs are natives, many of them trace their ancestry to the Bahamas; freshwater conchs are longterm residents who have migrated here years ago; Hispanics are mainly Cuban immigrants and there are also "refugees" from mainland Florida, quite a few English people and an assortment of drifters.The locals tend to be writers, artists and there are a lot of retired people, as well as a big gay community. They are very lucky, as they live in beautiful old restored Bahamian influenced Victorian houses or in quaint, white-framed conch cottages. All the houses are picture postcard perfect.Key West residents pride themselves on their tolerance of all people and of animals. Most restaurants allow pets and it is not unusual to see stray dogs and cats roaming freely. There are also chickens everywhere!The island is just 2 miles by 4 miles and the population is 27,000 full time residents. Almost daily, the population is swelled by cruise ship passengers who descend on Key West. They seemed to all flock to Sloppy Joes Bar and stay on Duval Street - a street which starts at the Atlantic and ends at the Gulf of Mexico.The highlights for us were:- the sunset celebrations at Mallory Square - wonderful sunsets and great street performers. We never tired of this and went every evening during our stay.- the conch train tour - a great way to get your bearings in Key West and find out lots of interesting information about its history, architecture and things to do.- the Hemingway House - a really interesting place, where you can almost feel the spirit of Ernest Hemingway and see the 6 toed cats - our son loved this part.- the aquarium - small, old fashioned but a great place to bring children. As well as being educational it is a lot of fun and they can touch a lot of the creatures too.- the Little White House - so interesting, find out all about the Trumann era and step right back in time at this wonderful house. I think this is truly a must see in Key West.Key West is 150 miles from Miami, 90 miles from Havana but this end of the line place is like nowhere else I have ever been to. It is quirky, unusual, relaxing and a fantastic place to bring children.
* Cars are rarely used on Key West. Bicycles and walking are the preferred methods to transport. The island is a flat, coral rock and is small and easy to navigate. It is only 2 miles by 4 miles so is very manageable on foot. Parking is also a nightmare - there is a lack of places to park. Be sure to bring lots of water though if you are walking - it gets extremely hot.* You will definitely be able to relax and chill out on Key West. This is the land of the eternal vacation. No-one wears a watch or a tie. As soon as you arrive, you feel the laid back holiday atmosphere just take you over. The phrase "hasta-manana" applies and did absolutely to us too, so be prepared. The sun is always shining, it is perfect for fishing, diving but most of all chilling out.* There is a cultural side to Key West as well. Over the years it has been home to dozens of literary types, including Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams. They were drawn to the pace of life, tropical atmosphere and light-hearted mood. You can visit their homes which are now museums. The presence of Jimmy Buffett is also felt in virtually every corner of Key West!* Wander around early in the morning. It is very lively and colourful at night, but you will see a completely different side to it in the morning after breakfast. It is quiet, you can hear the birds singing and you are truly able to enjoy its natural beauty.* Play the chicken spotting game with your children. There are chickens wandering around everywhere. Apparently the Cuban people brought their chickens with them when they came here. They didn't need the chickens in Key West, so put them out on the streets and they have been around ever since. They eat bugs etc. so the locals appreciate them. They are also some of the healthiest looking chickens I have ever seen.* There are not many high end shops or big brands in Key West, so do not come looking for a luxury shopping experience. There are however, lots of really nice, unusual and fun shops to browse in. A particularly good shop for children is Toy Factory - more of an experience than a shop, it is a great place to fire up their imaginations.* Make sure you take your time to amble slowly along the gorgeous lushly vegetated streets in Old Town. This place has an individual spirit, the vegetation is beautiful and the houses are so lovely - each one different.* Head to the buoy marking the southernmost point in the Continental USA. It is at the corner of South Street and Whitehead Street. It is a must-see. You will probably need to queue, but you have to have your picture taken standing next to it. It is big, stripey and you can't miss it. There is a plaque next to it honouring Cubans who lost their lives trying to escape to America. The buoy is only 90 miles from Cuba.* Have a margarita in Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. This is the original one, there is a great atmosphere and the drinks are good too! It is on Duval Street.* Sloppy Joes Bar is another must-see. It is legendary and was the favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway. We had lunch there twice - the food is very good. There is a great atmosphere and they always have live music playing when it is open. Captain Tony's bar is also worth a visit. This was the original location of Sloppy Joes before Joe moved his bar objecting to a rent increase. Captain Tony's is not so lively, but the ceiling is decorated with bras and other interesting things, so is worth a visit.
We booked a house for our stay in Key West. There are lots of rental agencies with holiday homes to rent in Key West and we just picked one of these and booked Duval Roost through them. The property was actually listed with a few different agencies, we just randomly selected one of them.We booked about 6 months before our holiday and everything relating to the booking went very smoothly. We had to pick up the keys at the agent's office on Duval Street and leave them back there at the end of the holiday.The hosue was just half a block from Duval Street, right in the heart of the Old Town area. It was tucked away on a private lane, but there were lots of other houses all around. Despite this, it still felt very private. The house had its own parking space too - this was essential, as we left the car here for most of the week.You enter the property down the lane and then into the pool courtyard area. It was a 2 storey house with high ceilings and lovely original features.Downstairs there was a large and airy living room with French doors opening out onto the courtyard and pool. There was a dining area and a separate sun room. The kitchen was fairly small and a bit old-fashioned, but had everything we neeeded.There was a twin bedroom with shower-room downstairs and then upstairs two large bedrooms. Both bedrooms had queen beds and sitting areas. They each had a shower-room and French doors to the shared balcony overlooking the pool.The pool was quite small, but apparently most properties in the Old Town do not have a pool, so we were very lucky. In hindsight I would say that a pool is essential, especially if you have children, so they can splash around, relax and cool down.There was a barbecue and the BBQ area had a table for 6 with a lighted umbrella. There were a lot of beautiful plants and foliage in the outside area. It looked lovely, but attracted a lot of bugs, so you needed to have plenty of bug spray on at all times.Furnishings in the house were traditional and very tasteful. They provided towels - although there was a limited number of these and they were a bit threadbare. The bathrooms suffered poor drainage - at times the toilets were very difficult to flush and the showers had a trickle of water coming out (the bathrooms in general were all a bit dated and very old fashioned). This may be just a problem with the Old Town area in general though, as these are old houses and maybe the drainage is not that great.I also had a bit of an issue with the cleanliness of the house. At first sight everything looked fine, but in the main bedroom, although the sheets and pillowcases looked clean, I found a lot of hairs on them. In addition, there were hairs in the bathrooms and a lot of dust on the bathroom ledges.There is a Faustino's Grocery store within walking distance of the house and we shopped here on our first evening. It is rather expensive though and we found Winn Dixie, just a short drive in the new part of town to be a better option. They had a huge selection and were a lot cheaper.We enjoyed our stay at Duval Roost. The location was very good and we especially enjoyed the private pool and had a bbq every evening during our stay. The issues with the drainage and the cleanliness however, did get to me a bit, and I would say look carefully at what you are getting before you choose a rental property in the Old Town area.
Every night in Key West there is a sunset celebration in Mallory Square. This is where Duval Street meets the Gulf of Mexico. It begins an hour or so before sunset and is a bit like a street carnival. There are vendors selling all sorts of things, food and fun performances. Be sure to bring your camera as there are great photo opportunites for some of the best sunsets ever.We went here every evening during our stay in Key West and never actually got tired of it.You need to arrive Mallory Square about an hour before sunset to catch the nightly celebration. Jugglers, fire-eaters, high wire artists and musicians do their thing. It really is the best show in town and the whole thing is free!Apparently the crowds can be overwhelming at peak holiday times. We found it was fine during our stay and never got too crowded at all. No matter what though, the festive atmosphere which ends with the magnificient sunset into the Gulf of Mexico, makes this a must-see. The sunset is different every night, the colours change depending on the clouds, so it becomes addictive as you want to see what you are going to get each evening.Vendors sell hand-made everything - from food to t-shirts to artwork - you can pick up some great souvenirs here. There was a man chopping the top off coconuts and selling these. The performances are also fantastic - we saw the most amazing escape artist, who proceeded to dislocate his shoulders and elbows in front of us to get out of his straightjacket; a banjo player whose dog went around the crowd and collected the tips; a fire eater whose finale involved his contortionist assistant folding herself into a box and then letting everyone in the crowd peek in at her; a unicyclist who juggled fire and a gymnast/acrobat who somersaulted through a tiny hoop which balanced on a lady's back while she leaned over a bicycle. It really is amazing!Half an hour or so before the actual sunset, get yourself to the edge of the deck so your children can get a good view of the sunset without being blocked by taller heads. Be sure to wear sunscreen as well - even this late in the day, you will need it.This is the perfect way to end the day in Key West - watching the wonderful street performers and then the grande finale - a spectacular sunset of fiery Caribbean pink that lights up the sky and then sinks into the water.
by Joy S on July 14, 2011
The Old Town part of Key West is the original part that was first settled. It is also the most desirable land, since it is the highest. Even during Hurricane Wilma which flooded most of the rest of Key West, the Old Town area was not affected.The homes in this area are so beautiful. They were built in the 1800's by wreckers, cigar makers and tropical tycoons. Often the wood that was used to build the houses, came from the ships people used to get here. The conch houses are lovely, the style is a bit like New England architecture, but they have larger porches and smaller dimensions. All the houses in the Old Town area are very well kept up and maintained. They look beautiful and we had a lot of fun just strolling around and admiring them. Make sure you stroll leisurely and explore the many little side streets. Here you will find banyan trees, tall palm trees and unruly exotic flowers threaten to overtake the little wooden houses.Look out for the "gingerbread" on the houses - this is the carved woodwork which is individual to each house. Amongst some of the gingerbread we saw were shamrocks and gingerbread men.The Conch Tour is a sightseeing train that focusses on the Old Town area. It is an excellent way to get your bearings and to hear more about all the architecture, shops, historic buildings and natural wonders. I would advise doing the tour in the morning. The little train is open sided and the sun will be beating down on you later in the day.The highlights are the seaport, Duval Street and the Hemingway House. Our tour guide was excellent - informative and very interesting.You get tickets at the depot which is near the corner of Duval and Front Street. It costs $15 for adults and $7 for children. The entire tour lasts about 90 minutes. There are 3 stops on the way, but the train has a break back at the station after 45 minutes. You have 10 minutes to get out and stretch your legs. We bought key lime pie on a stick from the shop by the stop - it is the most delicious thing ever. You can take ice-creams, drinks etc. back on the train.Duval Street is a mile long and stretches from the Gulf of Mexico at one end to the Atlantic Ocean at the other. It has lots of bars, restaurants, t-shirt shops and tour company offices. Apparently it was just on the safe side of seedy for many years, but now is a well tended strip of shops and is a really pleasant place for a leisurely stroll.Fast Buck Freddies is an interesting shop on Duval with toys and trinkets. Children love it - it is a bit like a mini tropical department store and the window displays are fun.As you stroll, definitely try Key Lime Pie dipped in chocolate - it is heavenly. Also we loved the (huge) warm cookies from Cafe de Paris. You will chuckle at the many silly t-shirts displayed in the windows of the tacky tourist shops. Don't let your children look at them too closely though - some are very risque and require a bit of explanation!Look at the city hall building on Duval, apparently it is an exact replica of the one in Havanna.Duval Street is absolutely buzzing after dark, with live music in all the bars. The atmosphere in the evenings is fantastic.
A cemetery is not normally a place you would visit on holiday, but the cemetery in Key West is an exception to this rule. It is not at all gloomy, but is a quirky and humorous place and a must-see. The cemetery is set in 19 acres. People of all races and backgrounds are buried here - everybody from mariners, Cuban cigar makers, Spanish American war veterans, milllionaires to paupers. Slaves, ill from their voyage to slavery in "the New World" were also buried here prior to the Civil War. In total 100,000 people are buried in this cemetery.It is open from 7am to 7pm. They have guided tours which last 60 minutes. You are also free to (as we did) wander around on your own. Pick up a free self-guided map from the office at the entrance, otherwise it is difficult to locate the most interesting graves.Burial customs reflect the combinations of African, Hispanic, Anglo and other mixed heritage. Most burials are in above ground tombs due to the water table.Headstones are often actually quite humorous, and reflect residents' light hearted attitudes towards life and death. "I told you I was sick," is one of the most famous epitaphs. The tongue in cheek widow's inscription "At least I know where he's sleeping tonight," also makes me smile.The main gates open at the first corner of Margaret and Angela Streets. The black archway with the letters B'nail Zion marks the Jewish Cemetery entry. There are separate areas for Catholics, Jews and refugees from Cuba.There is an interesting memorial to the USS Maine. It commemorates the 1898 sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbour. It is surrounded by an ornate wrought iron fence, painted in silver. Look out for the plot of General Abraham Lincoln Sawyer - he was only 40 inches tall, but his final wish was to be buried in a man-sized tomb.We also found the grave of Joe Russell, the founder of Sloppy Joe's bar - complete with lots of beads and an empty bottle of tequila on the grave.
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