This week’s “Snapshot” is a bit closer to home. Well, at least it’s in the United States, albeit at the very, very tip. I was only in Key West, Florida for one day so didn’t get to fully soak in the laid-back island lifestyle. However, in the brief time I was there I fell in love with the “Conch Republic.”
Part of the fun of Key West is just getting there. Although it has an international airport, taking a road trip down the 127-mile long Overseas Highway instead is an unparalleled travel experience. The southernmost stretch of U.S Route 1, the Overseas Highway strings the keys and mainland Florida together with a series of bridges. The roadway is so narrow in places that the trip can take four hours each way. Mile markers counting down to zero line the highway reminding you how much farther you’ve got to go. Despite the travel time, the spectacular views as you cross the Straights of Florida are breathtaking.
Separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico, the 1700 islands that make up the Florida Keys are actually the exposed parts of an ancient coral reef. The Spanish explorers, led by Ponce de León, originally named Key West Cayo Hueso (which translates to “Bone Key”) because of all the bones washed on shore from shipwrecks. Nowadays people are divided about why it’s called Key West; some argue that “Hueso” sounded like “West” to English-speakers and others say that it’s because it’s the westernmost inhabited Key.
Because of its tropical climate, coconut palms, banana trees, and colorful, flowering bushes are everywhere. I did my best to escape the sweltering July heat under the canopy of crimson blossoms from the Royal Poinciana trees that line the avenues.
The architecture of Key West is really charming, evoking a small-town Main Street, USA sort of feel. Pastel painted, clapboard-sided buildings; delicate, ornamental spindles on covered verandas; and exquisite Victorian detailing make the homes resemble gingerbread houses. There’s a smattering of Spanish and Cuban architectural influences in places too. The historic district of Old Town is full of quaint Bed & Breakfasts, restaurants serving locally-caught fish, and kitschy souvenir shops. Several popular (and somewhat raucous) bars line touristy Duval Street, right in the heart of town.
Some fun activities include taking a trolley tour, where you can learn a bit about the history of the island, or taking a glass-bottom boat ride to see tropical fish swimming on the reef below. Or if you are a bit more adventurous, Key West is world-famous for its diving and snorkeling opportunities too. One of the biggest tourist attractions is located on the south side of the island—a giant concrete buoy, marking the Southernmost Point of the Continental United States. Cuba is only 90 miles south of this point, making Key West closer to Havana than to Miami.
A local delicacy that I simply had to try was deep-fried conch fritters. It can be found in restaurants and stands all over town and yes, it tastes like chicken. Of course, no trip to the Florida Keys would be complete without a slice of authentic key lime pie. We enjoyed some, sitting on brightly painted stools on the pier, watching the sunset before the long trek back to Miami.
There is something very unique and special about Key West. It’s like no place I’ve seen before. Someday I hope to return to this island paradise and experience more of its distinctive charm.