Originally created 04/12/98

Sunny Key West Maintains Its Charm



KEY WEST, Fla. -- The quiet end of Key West's Duval Street, just blocks from the Southernmost Phenomena -- the Southernmost Point in the USA, the Southernmost House, even the Southernmost Motel -- is a narrow little storefront that probably qualifies as the Southernmost Antiques Shop.

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To his credit, the proprietor doesn't call it that, relying instead on prudently applied shock value for notoriety. Browse near the display of old rings, for example, and a seemingly lifeless rubber hand lying nearby might suddenly wiggle its electronically activated digits. And amid the daguerreotypes of fusty Victorian matrons and vintage playboys is another little in-joke that adroitly sums up this funky Florida town:

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A naked Barbie doll topped with a GI Joe head.

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Perhaps from the moment in prehistory when it rose from the other coral reefs surrounding it, Key West has been in the kung fu grip of an innately ironic sensibility: A gay mecca for decades, it gleefully cashes in on the machismo of its most wholly hetero resident, Ernest Hemingway. A subtropical paradise so laconic it's surprising anyone had the energy to come up with its many nicknames -- the Conch Republic, the Land of Manana, the Last Resort and, courtesy of Jimmy Buffett, Margaritaville -- it has real-estate prices so inflated only Calvin Klein can afford to have a house here. (And he does.)

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It's a place whose average temperature of 77 beckons to sunbathers, who arrive only to find that the rocky terrain translates into an embarrassing deficit of swimmable beaches. A place where everyday annoyances, such as rampant scooter snatchings, occasion life-threatening T-shirts ("Death to the Bike Thieves," shouts one). But death itself is just an opportunity for a one-liner: "I Told You I Was Sick," reads the inscription of one tombstone in the Key West cemetery.

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And despite the arrival of even the backpack-bedecked European youth-hostel crowd, Key West, immersed in its particular sense of loopiness, manages not to feel like a tourist trap.

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Not yet, anyway.

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My first, and until recently only, visit to Key West was about seven years ago, on the last leg of our honeymoon. We rented a red convertible in Miami, only to roll up the windows after five sweaty minutes of unbearable September heat. We took the 3[1/2]-hour ride southwest, riding through other keys -- from the Spanish meaning "small island" -- that all had something to recommend them.

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For first-timers, the drive from Miami to Key West is a command performance, if only to take in the flat subtropical landscape, the saltwater-siphoning mangrove trees, the interminably beautiful Seven Mile Bridge that connects Marathon and Sunshine Keys. The old bridge, decommissioned in 1982, runs alongside it like a winded jogger trying to keep up, parts of its expanse removed to prevent foot traffic. Once we reached Key West on that first trip, we turned up Fleming Street to our hotel, the Marquesa, to find the same kind of juxtaposition of sleek and cheesy. After leaving our bags at the immaculate, antiques-strewn B&B, we walked the short blocks to the main drag of Duval Street, passing some boarded-up doorways, neglected buildings, even a panhandler. Not enough to put us off, but enough to remind us Mouseketeer creep hadn't gotten this far.

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After revisiting this January, I'm here to report that grungy little Fleming Street is now awash in pricey antiques shops and that the touristification of Key West has erupted. Granted, it's not enough to Disneyize the audacious T-shirt culture ("One Tequila, Two Tequila, Three Tequila, Floor" is probably the only one printable in a family newspaper). Not enough to displace the gay clubs, including La-Te-Da, which was boarded up and abandoned when we drove by looking for it on a friend's recommendation in 1991; today it's revitalized, with a hot restaurant and upstairs cabaret lounge.

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But there are the warning signs, a few scattered red dots that suddenly, chicken-pox-like, might erupt into an epidemic and have you itching to leave: A Hard Rock Cafe. A Planet Hollywood. Doughy Middle American tourists with cameras around their necks, tires around their middles and droopy white socks around their ankles.

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For obsessive item-tickers, this one-and-a-half-by-three-mile island has some obligatory sights to see. There's the Hemingway House, where the six-toed cats are supposedly descended from the great writer's own, as well as the Little White House, Harry Truman's vacation home and the only presidential residence in Florida. On our last trip, we visited the circa-1829 Wrecker's Museum, the oldest house in south Florida and a potent reminder that a century ago a good portion of Key West's population made a living retrieving the loot of ships that sank off its coast. We watched the sun set at Mallory Square, clapping and toasting with everyone else when it took its final bow on cue.

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This time around, we watched the fishing boats come in at Charter Boat Row, as wives queued up to take photos of their sun-burned husbands' mahi-mahi and pelicans queued up to get their share of the scraps. Like those beady-eyed birds, we consumed the locally caught protein sources with Atkins-like abandon -- stone-crab legs, conch fritters, Gulf shrimp, red snapper. We explored the main house of our $200-a-night B&B (the Curry Mansion is also open to the public for self-guided tours), modeled after a Newport mansion, and chockablock with surprises: Tiffany glass, museum-quality antiques and, in the attic, a staircase to the widow's walk, which offers beautiful views and welcome breezes.

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Key West is a boon for architecture buffs, who need only pick up a free map of self-guided tours, like the "Pelican Path" brochure published by the Old Island Restoration Foundation. Even if the map is confusing -- and, in some cases, numbered incorrectly -- it lists most every interesting vintage house worth seeing, both public -- like the Aubudon House, which memorializes the naturalist's stop here in 1832 -- and private -- like the geometrically precocious Richard Peacon House, also called the Octagon House.

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But most memorable moments you'll experience on this funky little island aren't written anywhere in a tour book or plotted on a guide's itinerary: a barefoot old man, his face creased like a rumpled bed sheet, weaving hats out of green palm fronds on Duval Street. The chipper cab driver whose rhinestone-studded sunglasses had plastic pink flamingoes flanking each lens. The American Indian prints and cheesy busts of braves that inexplicably decorate El Sibonay, the down-home Cuban restaurant whose platanos-accompanied pork is to die for.

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On the northern end of Duval Street, fast-talking hucksters try to stop you in your tracks long enough to sell you an afternoon in paradise -- a fishing expedition, a catamaran cruise, a snorkeling session, a sailing excursion. "Catch you your limit in kingfish in an hour," drawled a sun-toasted woman in hiking boots and short-shorts.

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Recently, the Blue Heaven Bake Shop -- adjacent to the restaurant of the same name, famous for its brunches with live chickens underfoot -- started running ads offering a $5 million reward for the return of the island. "It was stolen recently and a substitute was put in its place," the manager deadpanned to a local paper. "You can see it right under the water line: It says, ??Made in Taiwan.' "

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For my part, I don't think Key West is that far gone. In fact, it's the only part of Florida I occasionally crave, just like the Key lime pies I brought back for friends and family, artfully packed in ice and a Styrofoam cooler by the Key West Key Lime Pie Co. I suppose eventually -- though I don't like to think about it -- Key West will be overrun by Barbies and Kens and Skippers.

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But until then, it's sure not to keep its head on straight.