Found The Hidden Keys
I admit it. i rode the World Famous Conch Tour Train in Key West. Not once but twice. I realize that letting a theme park-style choo choo guide give me an architecture lesson is like wearing an “I Heart Sloppy Joe’s” T-shirt on Duval Street. But I’m an old house junkie, and the random bits of Victorian trivia aboard the Conch Train fed my habit.
Recently I recruited a girlfriend for moral support and returned to the Keys to atone for my sins. We hopped aboard Joel Johnson’s Piper Aztec at Naples Municipal Airport. Less than an hour later we’re in our rental car, cruising up the Overseas Highway to Islamorada: ocean on the right, Florida Bay on the left, marinas packed with salty fishing charters, 1950s trailer parks and alluring seafood shanties.
Everybody knows that Islamorada, favored by Ernest Hemingway and various U.S. presidents, is the Sports Fishing Capital of the World. But Lori Denues, Islamorada’s rental agent to the stars, had told us about the other side of the “purple key”—secret hideaways where the elite escape for rest and rejuvenation.
Lori’s private-to-the-max, orchid-drenched island estates go for $10,000-$45,000 a month. Chauffeurs, helicopter transports, chefs, massage therapists, lobstering guides, bonefishing instructors, exclusive fishing charters and more are available on request. We could be happy with a weekend of that.
Leila’s Beach House is a 3,000-square-foot, two-story, wide-open contemporary with lots of glass and wraparound porches—steam shower, Jacuzzi, swimming pool, sailboat and purple sunrises included. The crew shooting an Ann Taylor catalog between the billowing cabana drapes and the sea has just left, and the estate will be unoccupied until some unnamed superstar arrives next week. The place is ours for two whole days.
Everything a guest seeking privacy with ambience could want lies between Mile Marker 84 and Mile Marker 80 on the Overseas Highway. The Moorings Village and Spa rests on a former coconut plantation. Bahamian-style mansions, lodges and cute honeymoon cottages are tucked into the shade of 700 coconut palms fringing an ultra-private white sand beach. The discreet staff won’t reveal the identities of their rich and famous guests, but it’s not rare to see superstars like Cameron Diaz or Sports Illustrated swimsuit models posing for magazines.
Nearby is Pierre’s, the resort’s blue and white colonial restaurant, a sensuous fusion of Asian and French décor. Think beachside tiki torches and intimate candle-lit dining rooms. Think fairy tale wedding. “On Islamorada?” you may ask. Our thoughts exactly.
That’s not to say one can’t feast on an authentic, Keys-style seafood meal in a funky, Keys-style seafood shack. I still dream about my “bucket o’ bait,” a tin bucket spilling over with crab legs, oysters, mussels and peel ’n’ eat shrimp on the deck of ’60s-era Wahoo’s (Whale Harbor Marina, Mile Marker 83.5). Followed by an otherworldly slice of Key lime pie.
We also can’t resist the pastries and private label coffees made on site at the colorful Midway Café (Mile Marker 81.6, midway between Miami and Key West).
Nightlife, Islamorada Style
A big draw for “been there, done that” escapees to Islamorada is the nightlife. Or lack thereof. There’s Ziggie & Mad Dog’s, an incarnation of gambler/drifter Ziggie Stocki’s 1960s restaurant/bar, once frequented by other shady characters, movie stars and sports heroes. A few years ago, Football Hall of Famer Jim “Mad Dog” Mandich (Super Bowl, Miami Dolphins, 1972) restored the place to its original quirkiness.
On this weekend, there’s a full moon, which means two things: The Howl at the Moon Party at Pierre’s, with bonfires and Caribbean music into the wee hours, and maybe even bigger, the legendary “shrimp run” under the Channel 2 Bridge. Seriously. According to charter captain J.R. Rudzin (who once held the world bonefish record for about two hours), the action starts around midnight. The bridge could be packed elbow-to-elbow with a hundred or more fishermen with nets and lanterns, waiting for that once-monthly phenomenon when millions of Gulf shrimp will come swooshing through the narrow pass.
It’s best when the wind is out of the north, like tonight. We show up around 8 p.m. With four hours to go, the adrenaline is already high. We consider waiting it out, but we’re starting early tomorrow toward Key West to face my Conch Train demons.
Dear Key Deer
On the way down, we take the turnoff to No Name Key—home, of course, to the No Name Pub and not much else, except a population of miniature whitetail deer that exists nowhere else on Earth. The endangered Key deer, barely taller than Labrador retrievers, run free on a 9,200-acre refuge on Big Pine Key. We’ve heard they’re shy and stay mostly hidden, but today several of them prance into the open, getting close enough to steal our hearts.
Back to Luxury
Our master suite at the Ocean Key Resort and Spa has two master bedrooms. Shall I take the one with the marble Jacuzzi or the one with the corner balcony with the French doors? Ah, decisions. Below, billowing sails of sightseeing catamarans dot the harbor.
We amble along to Greene Street, home of the notable Greene Street Gallery. Also on Greene is Peppers of Key West, with its massive tasting bar (bring your own beer), where some sauces are so dangerously hot you have to sign a release to buy them.
Then there’s Kermit’s Key Lime Shop: homemade pies, cheesecakes, cookbooks, even Key lime spa products. It’s a visit just to chat with Kermit in his big green chef’s hat. Unfortunately, he loses points when he pops out of his shop, pie in hand, to wave to passing tourists.
Despite our resolve not to be tourists, we’re lured down to the Sunset Celebration under a purple sky. I don’t get much past the dog wearing khaki shorts and the fire juggler when I discover Dana Powell and her beautiful hand-cut sea glass light catchers. By the time I make my selection, I’ve missed the contortionist, escape artists and who knows what. Ah well, consolation awaits at former Neapolitan Walt Kramer’s fudge shop, Sweets of Paradise.
Early Sunday morning, Old Town still slumbers, except for the famous Key West roosters and me. They’re strutting, and I’m strolling along Simonton Street. Here’s Casa Antigua, Hemingway’s first home on the island; ancient coral rock walls and ornate iron gates; Sarabeth’s, an old synagogue-turned chic restaurant, and—what is this?—a tiny bougainvillea-lined alley. Inside are pretty houses half-hidden behind picket fences. I’m completely charmed. It’s a treasure hunt: There’s another alley, and look! Another! I see Caribbean cottages, conch shacks and gingerbread Victorians, some surprisingly grand. The Conch Train never mentioned this.
It turns out there are more than a hundred such lanes in the heart of Old Town, dating back to the 1800s. Most visitors never discover them, and the locals aren’t telling. Some are barely five feet wide. There’s Poor House Lane, Graveyard Alley and Gruntbone Alley. There’s Billygoat Lane, also known as Hibiscus Lane. You turn down Fulford Lane, and when you come out the other end, it’s Loco Lane. It’s a trick, I think, to confuse the tourists. Two of Key West’s finest inns are tucked into such lanes. All this just a few blocks off Duval Street!
Another Duval Perspective
In all fairness, Duval Street does have its treasures; among them the stunning white towers and spires of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
La Concha Hotel, where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, and our islandy yellow Ocean Key Resort at Zero Duval Street, along with the church and the nearby Key West Lighthouse, make a picturesque tropical skyline. Duval Street is home to the imposing gold and cream stucco San Carlos Institute, established by 19th century Cuban exiles. It’s now a fine museum. Some exquisite restaurants also have Duval Street addresses, most notably the critically acclaimed, very romantic two-story Victorian mansion, “915.”
So now it’s time to face the Conch Train. We’re swept toward the kiddie cars of the Conch Train in a sea of cruise ship tourists. Some are munching—I’m not kidding—frozen Key lime pies on a stick. The guide is telling the story of the tin roof law (supposedly a former mayor had a relative in the tin business). I’m feeling smug as we pass several half-hidden lanes without a mention.
I’m over it. We hop off the train at mid-point and head off in search of frozen Key lime pies on a stick.
Local Color is the “it” shop among locals, with yummy linen clothing and unique jewelry that runs from $10 to one-of-a-kind treasures at $10,000.
Sculpture Key West, an annual exhibition of contemporary works by world-class artists, runs through April 18. www.sculpturekeywest.com
IF YOU’RE GOING ...
Gulf Coast Airways
$625 each way, or $136 per person based on a full five-passenger charter flight from Naples Municipal Airport.
Key West Express
High-speed Big Cat Express boat from Marco Island or Fort Myers Beach gets you there in four hours. $139 per person. Junior and senior discounts.
Ocean Key Resort, Key West
Intimate Spa Terre features massage and traditional Balinese rituals. Conch fusion cuisine in the waterfront Hot Tin Roof Restaurant. (800) 328-9815, www.oceankey.com
Moorings Village Resort and Spa, Islamorada
Private residences on the lanes of Key West: Gary Thomas, Preferred Properties.
Private residences on Islamorada: Lori Denues.