Folklore, films and widespread hearsay have given the FLORIDA KEYS – a hundred-mile chain of islands that runs to within ninety miles of Cuba – an image of glamorous intrigue they don’t really deserve; at least, not now that the go-go days of the cocaine cowboys in the 1980s are long gone. The Keys can more accurately be described as an outdoor-lover’s paradise, where fishing, snorkelling and diving dominate. Terrific untainted natural areas include the Florida Reef, a great band of living coral just a few miles off the coast. But for many, the various keys are only stops on the way to Key West. This self-proclaimed “Conch Republic” has vibrant, Caribbean-style streets with plenty of convivial bars in which to while away the hours, watching the spectacular sunsets.
Wherever you are on the Keys, you’ll experience distinctive cuisine, served for the most part in hip little shacks where the food is fresh and the atmosphere laidback. Conch, a rich meaty mollusc, is a speciality, served in chowders and fritters. There’s also key lime pie, a delicate, creamy concoction of special Key limes and condensed milk that bears little resemblance to the lurid green imposter pies served in the rest of the US.
Closer to Cuba than to mainland Florida, KEY WEST has a culture that is a bit contrary to the rest of the mainland US. Famed for their tolerant attitudes and laidback lifestyles, the thirty thousand islanders seem adrift in a great expanse of sea and sky, and – despite a million tourists a year – the place resonates with an individual spirit. In particular, liberal attitudes have stimulated a large gay influx, estimated at two out of five of the population. Although Key West today has been heavily transformed for tourists, the town has retained some of its offbeat character, especially away from the main drag of Duval Street, now a well-tended tourist strip of boutiques and beachwear shops (though it’s still a pleasant place for a leisurely stroll).
Make sure to visit the Bahamian Village, centred on Thomas and Petronia streets. Originally settled by Cubans and African-Bahamians, this relatively unrestored, untouristy corner of town is an atmospheric patchwork of single-storey cigar-makers’ cottages, Cuban groceries and ramshackle old churches, all covered by a rich green foliage.