I love to travel to Key West. It’s an eclectic place that fosters the last bastion of true bohemianism. It’s weird, wild and wonderful.
Every bar looks as though either Jimmy Buffet or a pirate are the proprietors. Dogs sit inside beside their owners on a stool with a bowl of water. They are all open and breezy without any doors, polish or pretense.
They all have unique character and a story to tell. Some have antiques from boats long gone, sharks’ teeth or stuffed fish. Another is decorated wall to wall with dollar bills tacked up at random from patrons over many decades, with their signature.
But true to its laid back reputation, most of the bars are “take them or leave them,” your choice. While looking around, I once moved to a different table after observing cakes of dust built up on the ceiling fan above. It definitely deterred me from eating there, but alcohol kills everything, right?
On a pub crawl, a guide took us to many of the bars in the downtown area and regaled us with tales of murder, mayhem and debauchery, as well as a few ghosts who linger in their old watering-hole haunts.
Many accounts of the drinking prowess of one world famous classic author, Ernest Hemingway, are told in several bars. My favorite is the one where in the middle of the night, the original owner of Captain Tony’s told Papa H, his most loyal customer, that his landlord raised his rent, so he had to move to a new location down the street, now called Sloppy Joes. In a drunken escapade, Tony and Ernest and a few others moved everything in the middle of the night from the one location to the other, to stick it to the landlord. Hemingway took his favorite urinal, so he single-handedly pulled it off the wall to relocate it.
And in these bars, you can take your drink to go, as long as it is not in a glass cup. Was it legal? No, but as I was told by one barkeep.
“We just follow our own path here. We don’t really pay attention to rules.”
That always summed up Key West to me in a nutshell. They march to their own drummer.
Walking down Duvall Street, you can find small shops with the usual tourist trinkets and printed t-shirts, but you can also find any number of artisans and their works for sale. They weren’t in a shiny gallery or shop, the works laid on the pavement, a chair or on anything to prop up and display. The art spoke for itself and need fancy packaging. The artists didn’t care about commerce or bottom line. They just wanted to do their thing and if they got money for it – great.
At any given time, you can see someone in a Superman cape and tights or any other Halloween costume. No special occasion, it’s what they chose to wear that day. And many people don’t even wear shoes, even inside the restaurants, shops and bars.
On one stroll, I saw a man with a lime green and yellow boa constrictor looped around his neck, just hanging there like a long necklace that hit the ground. It was his pet and he was just taking it to do some shopping. No big deal. Nothing odd to see.
Although, my husband, who is deadly afraid of snakes, would disagree as he made sure to conveniently jockey position to switch with me, so when we passed the snake, I was the one walking next to it.
Of course, there are the typical tourist spots for fun in the sun, boating and fishing, like most tropical places. But in Key West, there are also old buildings and architecture to see, some cared for, some not. But again, it’s non conformist and noncommercial, although most houses cost a cool million to own. And you can see Hemingway’s house, a random lighthouse with eighty-eight steps to the top and a museum where they unearthed treasure from a Spanish galleon beneath the sea.
Any number of walk-up outdoor counters serve conch fritters, gator and even shark. No four-star restaurants, just wrapped in a paper cone to taste on the go – sometimes with a frosty adult beverage in tow.
Like the bartender said, Key West is a place that made its own rules.
Each time I go, it seems different, weirder and more wonderful. But now that’s starting to change. There are less artisans on the main drag, less interesting costumed people on the street and with the Hard Rock restaurant and bar, corporate commercialism is starting to seep in. Although part of that restaurant is located in an old and somewhat haunted building, so there’s that.
Even Jimmy Buffet, the personification of an easy breezy beach lifestyle, has gone corporate with his Margaritaville bar and restaurant spilling over into a “hospitality company” with resorts and hotels. I guess nothing stays uncommercialized forever.
I still believe the essence of Key West lives, but I just hope it stays that way. We need weird, wild and wonderful places just to ensure that bohemia and a lifestyle of “just go with it” never dies.