"Beyond Key West’s theme bars and shell shops, there’s a paradise to be found,” writes Christopher Percy Collier in his article “The Secret Key,” first published in National Geographic Adventure’s December 2006/January 2007 issue. Collier—and IgoUgo travelers—share tips on where to find solitude at the States’ southern tip.
Long before Jimmy Buffet–inspired tourists supplanted shipwrecked sailors, rum runners, and the island’s original Calusa inhabitants, Key West (pop. 25,478) was just an eight-square-mile dollop of sand and coral surrounded by hundreds of miles of crystal blue water. It still can be, if you know where to look. “People joke that Key West is a drinking town with a tourist problem,” says Paul Menta, 40, who operates the Kitehouse kiteboarding school. “But there are lots of things to do away from all the people.” To discover the real Key West, you can snorkel one of the longest coral reefs in the Western Hemisphere, camp in solitude at Dry Tortugas National Park, and fish the fabled Gulf of Mexico flats from a sit-on-top kayak. On land, a rickety bike gets you anywhere you’d want to go. Hang around for more than a few days and you’ll learn that, at this lower latitude, a less frazzled existence is the norm. You’ll also master a lesson that all newcomers must: In Key West, fitting in requires leaving your inhibitions up north—and occasionally donning a silly hat.
Where to play: Paul Menta’s charter boat puts you and your kiteboard out in a stellar training ground with consistent winds ($200 for four hours; www.thekitehouse.com). Lazy Dog Island Outfitters runs guided paddles ($60 for four hours; www.h2okeywest.com) through the turquoise waters that border the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. Seventy miles offshore, Dry Tortugas National Park is a camper’s paradise: seven uninhabited islands surrounded by coral reefs (www.nps.gov/drto).
Many an IgoUgo member labels Dry Tortugas National Park a must-see in the Keys—or a must-do if you follow debrakay’s itinerary for a snorkeling adventure, with a little history thrown in. She says that “the islands of the Dry Tortugas are beautiful and the history of Fort Jefferson is very interesting—a wonderful day adventure.”
Where to eat: Blue Heaven (305-296-8666) serves Caribbean-inspired fare
in its backyard, which was once used for cockfighting, boxing matches, and high-stakes card games. For a nightcap, skip the now-touristy Hemingway haunts for the Grand Vin (305-296-1020), a tiny wine bar that’s often overlooked by the bacchanal on Duval Street.
Whether you choose Blue Heaven for the Caribbean food or the Rachael Ray factor, see if PIANOMAN’s whimsical assessment rings true: “This place looks like it was created by chance...like it's been there a hundred years, just washed ashore.” (Also remember his more practical advice: “Don’t feed the chickens or you’ll be sorry.”)
Where to stay: The quiet Treetop Suite at The Mermaid & The Alligator ($168; www.kwmermaid.com) is the sort of hideaway you’ll want after a day out in the wind and water. At Southernmost on the Beach ($244; www.southernmostonthebeach.com), you can watch the sun rise and set from a private pier.
When it comes to The Mermaid & The Alligator, two IgoUgoers have us at “hello.” JayBroek begins his review by saying, simply, “This place is to die for.” The first line of summerpyle’s review is equally intriguing: “I thought for a second I shouldn't write this review; however, I can't keep this big secret any longer.”
Key West by the Numbers
77: Average year-round temperature
46: Number of cats at the Hemingway House
12.2: Distance in miles of the annual Swim Around Key West Race
14: Number of feet above sea level of Key West’s highest point