Escape to the Keys 7

Paradise is closer than you think — and the Keys welcome all comers.

Cool nights, tiny umbrellas in fruity drinks, soft sand, and the rustle of palm trees in a warm breeze; the sights, textures, and sounds of a tropical vacation inspire relaxation like nothing else. As summer approaches — and brings with it, undoubtedly, another year of punishing heat — many Texans look to their calendars and begin to daydream of an equatorial escape. A few usual suspects come to mind: Hawaii, perhaps, or Cozumel. For ease of travel and convenience, however, one destination should stand paramount: Key West, Florida.

As the southernmost point in the continental United States, Key West has the benefit of geography to add to a whole host of additional blessings. Situated closer to Cuba than Miami, this subtropical escape maintains an irreverent and independent spirit that preserves a stress-free, vacation destination vibe year-round. As to what makes Key West special, and what distinguishes it from other, comparable retreats, look no further than the unique factors that craft its one-of-a-kind spirit. Key West sits at the intersection of Bahamian, Cuban, and North American culture, and boasts a singular mixture of history, natural, and architectural beauty.

Whether you fly in to Key West International Airport or drive in across the Overseas Highway, you’ll find yourself transported to a place removed from everyday cares. This historic appeal has not only lured generations of vacationers, but also a who’s who of celebrities, writers, and musicians, including Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Tennessee Williams, and Jimmy Buffett. For each of these personalities — not to mention the generations of fishermen and cigar makers who have called the island home — Key West appeared redolent of all the hallmarks of paradise.

While most people assume that Key West is a mere tropical hamlet, the island actually boasts a population of over 25,000. This benefits visitors through a staggering array of dining and lodging options, so that, regardless of the time of year, vacationers can find a table or room to suit their tastes and budgets.

For atmosphere and history, you can’t beat Blue Heaven, a casual al fresco restaurant. Located blocks from the Hemingway Home, the great author himself frequented the boxing ring that once occupied this site. Today, the restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the courtyard beneath the shade of a 90-year-old lime tree. If you’d prefer to eat your own catch-of-the-day, Cafe Sole will expertly sautee, grill, or blacken fish you pulled out of the ocean yourself. Of course, we’re not all anglers, and this exceptional French-Caribbean restaurant offers a full menu in a candlelit setting.

Though it’s excusable to spend all your time in Key West eating, you may want to fill the odd hour with other activities. Want some history? Visit the aforementioned Hemingway Home, or stop off at the Curry Mansion. The latter, an elaborate Victorian residence, preserves the island’s era of elegance, and also offers an on-site inn. Fort Jefferson, the world’s largest masonry structure, resides amidst the pristine Dry Tortugas National Park. A day-trip from Key West, the immense structure and world-class snorkeling at the Dry Tortugas make this a must-visit. To truly appreciate Key West’s natural bounty, stop by the Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden. This arboretum and wildlife refuge features the only frost-free tropical forest garden in the contiguous United States.

For many visitors, a major part of the island’s appeal comes from its legendary night life. The island has no shortage of bars, many of which line Duval Street in the city’s iconic Old Town. The oldest bar in Florida, Capt. Tony’s Saloon, offers a picturesque setting to imbibe your favorite spirits, or perhaps snap a photo amidst decades of memorabilia. To truly get into the island spirit, you’ll want to visit the Garden of Eden. This clothing-optional bar sits atop the Bull and Whistle, and provides a useful excuse to bare it all.

After your night (or nights) out, you may want to dry out and soak in some of Key West’s legendary salt breezes. The island’s Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park welcomes visitors for a nominal fee per carload, and has an expanse of white sand, along with deep water for snorkeling or swimming. Closer to center, Smathers Beach sits along South Roosevelt Boulevard, and offers day-passes for parasailing, kayaking, or tubing. Regardless of what you choose to do, you’ll sympathize with Hemingway, who said:

“It’s the best place I’ve ever been, anytime, anywhere.”