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Key West, FL
Friday, August 14, 2009 - 10:15am by Lolo
32 miles and 0.75 hours from our last stop - 1 night stay
We were very excited about going to Key West. Not being able to do a real full cross country trip this summer had been a real disappointment, so we wanted to see someplace exotic or at least very different from what we were used to. Well, Key West certainly fit the bill.
I had spent a bit of time prior to leaving researching Key West campgrounds, and what I had discovered was that they were extremely expensive. These were not just campgrounds, but “resorts”, costing $130 a night for a family of 4—pretty pricey for a place to park. However, a Google search for Key West Campgrounds brought up a name I hadn’t seen in my old copy of Woodalls: El Mar RV Resort. Their off-season rate for a family of 4 was just $100 ($80 for 2 people plus $20 for the kids). Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that $100 was a bargain for a campground. I got on the phone to make a reservation. The gentleman was very nice and told me that I didn’t need a reservation that time of year as it was their off season. Being the paranoid trip planner that I am, and the fact that we would be arriving in Key West on a Friday, I decided to book one night anyway and leave the second night as an option. He put me in for a site that was literally two feet from the water.
In actuality, neither this campground nor Boyd’s was actually on Key West, but rather on Stock Island, just over the bridge to Key West. Herb really hates driving the RV through unknown cities and hassling with parking and such, so we were very glad to learn from the campground owner that Key West was a very bicycle friendly city, and we were just 4 miles away from Duval Street and Mallory Square. It actually turned out to be more like 6, but that was okay. We like the exercise anyway.
I was feeling pretty smug about my campground choice until we actually arrived on Stock Island and couldn’t find it. We had an address: 6700 Maloney Avenue, and we had a GPS, so how hard could this be. Boyd’s address was 6401 Maloney and we had already passed their fancy little entrance with palm trees twice in our search for 6700. I was beginning to think that I had been had and that this campground really didn’t exist. We stopped again at the spot where our GPS’s annoying little voice said, “Arriving at destination.” We sat for a moment outside a white fence which opened onto what looked like a gravel driveway. No welcome sign, no palm trees, and not a tiki bar in sight. We pulled through the gate and realized that this was actually it. There were no other RVs in sight. The only way we could tell that it was actually a campground was by the electric boxes located next to about 15 parking spaces. There was no office, just a small white shed with the door locked. I immediately got on my cell phone and dialed the phone number for El Mar RV, and I use the term loosely, Resort. “We’re here,” I announced to the nice gentleman on the phone. “Oh, just take any site you like and someone will come around later to check you in.” Okay, this was a bit weird, but maybe it was the way they did things in Key West. We drove to the end of the short gravel driveway and took the last site, which was right on an inlet with a 180 degree water view. It was great. Just a little strange.
Rather than try to navigate the RV through the narrow streets of the Old Town, we hopped on our bikes to ride the 5 miles to get there. The first 4 miles or so through New Town were pretty uneventful, like the outskirts of most cities, and it didn’t get very interesting until we reached Whitehead Street, which marks the start of the historic Old Town. It is a very cool place with some very interesting characters on the street. We stopped at Mallory Square, the site of Key West’s famous “Sunset Celebration.” Nothing much was happening there yet, just a few homeless people, getting an early jump on saving a good position for tonight’s show.
It was pretty hot out, so we decided to save Duval Street for later and ride over to Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, which was rumored to have the nicest beach in Key West, and as the ranger told us at the entrance station, a sunset view to rival Mallory Square. The beach was lovely, with plenty of shade trees at its edge to keep cool and a small café to get a treat. The only problem with the beach was that it was very pebbly at the water’s edge making it difficult for tender-foots such as myself to get in and out while maintaining some grace and dignity. A large rock, a short distance offshore, was a good destination to swim to and a great photo opportunity from shore. We spent a few hours swimming, enjoying the shade, and people watching. We met a very nice 75-year “young” woman traveling the country with her 20-something grandson on a journey to discover what they wanted to do when they grew up. She had quite an interesting past, but very much did not believe that all the good stuff in life was behind her. She was quite refreshing.
The beach was so lovely that we decided that we would come back the next day with the RV—there was plenty of room to park it—and use it as a base camp to explore Key West. We could spend some time in Old Town in the morning, swim in the afternoon, and stay to watch the sunset that night.
After leaving the State Park, we biked to Southernmost Point at the end of Whitehead Street to get in line to take our picture next to the big striped buoy marking the southernmost spot in the continental U.S. Andrew declared it a tourist trap and refused to participate, so Tommy and I got in line behind a large troop of girl scouts, whose leader proceeded to take photographs of them in every possible combination. I got mad at Herb when I found him taking pictures of them too. They really were hogging the buoy and starting to get people a little annoyed. Finally, we got our turn at the buoy and Herb took our picture. It just had to be done.
We started to rethink our plan of staying for sunset at Mallory Square that night and then biking back to the campground. The ride through New Town had not been that great and was not something we were looking forward to doing in the dark. We would just catch the sunset tomorrow instead when we had the RV with us to ride back in safely afterwards. Unfortunately, tropical storm Danny would have other ideas for that plan.
On our ride back, Tommy wanted to stop at a bookstore because he had forgotten to pack any books and was getting a little bored just watching us read. We found a great bookstore on Fleming Street right across from a Peep Show advertising that “couples were welcome.” Key West certainly was diverse. The bookstore had some really interesting used and rare books and we could have spent hours there. Herb was probably thinking the same about the Peep Show. Tommy finally settled on some light reading, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Herb the engineer was so proud.
The rest of the ride back was uneventful and we soon arrived back at our still deserted campground. While the boys were out running, someone finally did come over to collect our money for the night. We decided to not commit yet for another night, but to wait and see what we felt like doing after watching sunset in Key West the following night. After all, this place, although inexpensive by Key West standards, was still $100 a night, a lot of money to just pull into to park after sunset. I don’t think we had to worry about the place filling up.
That night in our lonely little campground was great. We set our beach chairs near the wall at the water’s edge, watched the sky fill with stars, and listened to what seemed like a pretty good party going on across the inlet at the Hogfish Bar and Grill.
The next day we awoke to some pretty cloudy skies, and the weather radio didn’t make us feel much better about the prospects for our day. Tropical storm Danny was in the neighborhood and we were very likely going to get hit with some rain and big winds. Ironically, after all the days of Florida sunshine, we chose to use as our Christmas card this year, the picture of us taken that morning standing happily in front of the RV framed by palm trees. If you look closely, you can see the ominous clouds approaching us in the background.
We drove into Key West, but by the time we got to the entrance to the State Park it started to rain pretty hard. Rather than pay the admission to sit in the rain all day, we decided to go to the Eco Discovery Center right next door first and hope that the weather improved while we were in there. The Eco Discovery Center was a good way to pass the time on a rainy day, while learning a lot about the Florida Keys’ unique ecosystems. My favorite was the underwater cameras you could peer through to see life on a coral reef.
The rain did not look like it was going to let up any time soon. In fact, it was getting much worse. We decided to put on some rain gear and brave the storm in search of a good place to have lunch. I resisted the temptation of doing the touristy thing and going to Sloppy Joe’s, Ernest Hemingway’s old hangout on Duval Street, and instead steered the family to the much quieter Blue Heaven restaurant on Thomas Street. It actually turns out that Hemingway frequented this place as well, and even refereed cockfights here, but it’s still not as crazy and noisy as Sloppy Joe’s. I had done my homework well. Blue Heaven truly was heaven. It would have been nice to eat in the outdoor dining area, which is considered “the quintessential Keys experience,” but the weather still wasn’t cooperating. We waited for our inside table on the porch behind the restaurant, and watched the chickens freely wandering about as if they owned the place. This Key West free-ranging chicken thing was pretty unique. I knew already what I wasn’t going to order. Needless to say, the food and the atmosphere were great, and our moods were much improved.
We wandered out into the rain again and walked the length of Duval Street. The southern part is fairly quiet and classy, but as you go north towards Mallory Square, things get rowdier and tackier and a bit more interesting. There were plenty of t-shirt shops and bars, and I’m sure that those plastic cups that people were carrying on the street didn’t have fruit juice in them--and this was only mid-afternoon. I couldn’t imagine what went on here at night. There were also some very impressive galleries and some very impressive key lime pie to be had on Duval Street. I’m embarrassed to say that I had never tried Key Lime pie before, and being the chocoholic that I am, I had my doubts, but from everything I’ve heard Key West was the place to try it. Not sure that we would like it, we bought just a slice and each took a bite. It was wonderful. On our drive out of town I made Herb stop at a Publix so that I could buy an entire pie to enjoy on the rest of the trip. It didn’t last more than a day.
It was late afternoon and still raining, so rather than go back to our Key West campground for another $100 night, we decided to start driving north and stay at a more reasonably priced state park.
Many of the residents of Key West call themselves Conchs (pronounced 'conks'). Technically, Conchs are people that were born in Key West. Those that merely moved here after they were born can refer to themselves as "Freshwater Conchs" once they have lived in Key West for 7 years.
Conchs pride themselves on their tolerance of all peoples and hosts a large gay population. Its tolerance also extends to chickens, who roam freely through the dining rooms of many restaurants, despite the efforts of state health officials to end this practice.
The primary tourist destination on the island of Key West is the historic Old Town area on the very western part of the island (which most think of as the southern part). An excellent way to cover the sights of the historic district is to take the Old Town Trolley or the Conch Tour Train. Bicycles are another great way to get around the Old Town. Some of the highlights of the Old Town include:
Duval Street, the main touristy street in Key West, runs north-south from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean. It is the location of many famous restaurants and bars (such as Hemingway's favorite watering hole, Sloppy Joe's), t-shirt shops, and art galleries. It's carnival-like atmosphere lasts until dawn.
Mallory square is located just west of the northern end of Duval Street, next to the cruise ship port. It is the site of the "Sunset Celebration", a nightly event that attracts hundreds of tourists that gather to watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico. The celebration also includes street performers, craft vendors, food carts, and a colorful collection of regular attendees. It begins two hours before sunset, every day of the year.
Eco Discovery Center
This 6,400-square-foot attraction includes replications of a variety of Florida key habitats, touch-screen computer displays, and live underwater cameras showing the coral reefs.
Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum
Ernest Hemingway wrote about 70% of his books while living in this home between 1931 and 1942. 30 minute tours begin every 10 minutes. Admission required.
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park
The state park contains a Civil War era fort as well as the best beach in Key West. There is an adjoining picnic area with barbecue grills and shade trees and a snack bar. The state park is also a popular spot to watch sunset.
The Southernmost Point, located at the end of Whitehead Street, is perhaps the most photographed site in Key West. It contains a big striped buoy marking the southernmost spot in the continental U.S.
Key West location map in "high definition"