a look (through 60 spf) at Key West
Key West is a conglomeration of - everything! If you look in one direction, there's a gated community populated by retired military and some serious midwest money. A few blocks the other way, you'll stumble into a bar that knows no closing time and is variously populated by superannuated hippies, thirsty tourists, writers in search of local color and spring breakers. There are any number of art galleries, very little art, a lot of "souvenir art." There's no fine dining, not really, but the Tex-Mex is world-class, and people actually come to our favorite Tex-Mex - Chico's - straight from the airport.
And yet, year after year, the ocean, the casual mix of people, the relaxed attitude toward life, toward art, toward cooking... pulls us back. Key West is almost unmatched for natural beauty, and now that the "other" (non-tourist) side of the island has 2 or 3 major supermarkets and some big-box stores and drugstores, we don't have to worry if we forgot something and will wind up driving 40 minutes or paying $16 for a small tube of toothpaste. And even if your morning plans are as mundane as hitting the supermarket for beer and unscented detergent, you never know what you'll find.
We set out to pick up a nice little bottle of red -- did I mention that the supermarkets have respectable wine and beer departments? this is civilization! -- and there were the Budweiser Clydesdales, antique horse-drawn fire engine, exceptionally well-trained Dalmatian and all. No idea how the Clydesdales got there, and they weren't talking.
Key West offers accommodations which range from the ultra-luxurious and ultra-expensive to the really scary, and there's plenty of choice in-between. We've tried hotels, short-term condo rentals, and b&bs, and we come back to the condo answer when we can. The b&bs are not inexpensive and the rooms and comfort vary greatly. We stayed at one that we thought was on the expensive size but otherwise fine, stayed there a second time and were given a much inferior room which our hosts couldn't or wouldn't change. This is a shot of their back garden, shamelessly copied from their website. As is true of many b&bs, the owners put their money into the public spaces, not the mattresses and showers.
Year-round ownership is prohibitively expensive, just watch HouseHunters as people try to convince themselves that a $2.75 million (US) two-bedroom cottage in a downtown area doesn't really need a lot of renovation. Rentals are available, probably the best deals are the condos that people have bought as investment properties and plan to sell or renovate when they retire. Given what's been happening to the anticipated retirement age for a lot of folks, there might even be longer-term rentals available. Like anywhere else, if you want to be somewhere picturesque and in the middle of things, it will cost you.
The beaches are shallow. Very shallow.
But the sunshine and moderate climate are infinite. Yes, even though this is South Florida, the geography - at the tip of a peninsula - is such that it's rarely horribly hot and almost never freezing cold.
And although the cost of living can be sky-high, there are still many traces of the "Bohemian" lifestyle of the 50's and 60's. For example, some neighborhood groceries stay open quite late.
Private houses in Key West are charming, vary in size, have delightful architectural features - and sky-high prices. We've gone on a few house tours, and I strongly recommend doing this if there's one going on when you visit. There are a number of organizations, arts, charitable, educational, ecological - that sponsor them. A lot of the hurricane damage to homes has been repaired, to the exterior eye, at least, and a lot of places with "character" now look fresh and spiffy. There are also garden tours, plants really really flourish here.
Sports - anything to do with boats and water can be done here, and it's fun to walk along the docks and look at the different boats. You'll see everything from a wildly painted dinghy to a luxurious yacht to a Disney cruiseship. For some reason, there's an oceanside bocce court with some serious leagues, and some lonesome snowbirds support a rink and The Southernmost Hockey League. Wildlife - imagine eating lunch at a seafood shack on the water and looking down to see a wandering manatee.
And of course the Daily Event - the Sunset. Because of Key West's location, sunsets are large and dramatic. People gather at Mallory Square and line up to stare at the horizon. Vendors and street performers spice up the scene. For a few years, my favorite act was the couple with the pot-bellied pig that sort of did tricks, the pig, that is. The couple always work the line "Our parents think we're attorneys" into their patter, and the pig tries not to look exasperated.