Recently my husband and I spent a weekend in the Florida Keys.
The southernmost section of the continental United States remains a friendly and accepting environment for gays and lesbians. This is specifically true in Key West, which proudly advertises its “One Human Family” motto.
In Key West we stayed at the Gardens Hotel, 526 Angela Street, just one block off Duval Street — a major thoroughfare on the island. The Gardens Hotel welcomes men and women, gay or straight. It is lushly landscaped with tropical plants, shady trees and beautiful flowers.
Conde Nast’s travel magazine has bestowed honors upon the Gardens Hotel and it is easy to see why. We stayed in one of the newer cottages our first two nights before moving into the Carriage House our final night. Our cottage came with a full kitchen including granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances. But in Key West, you do not want to spend too much time in the kitchen.
For single guys, the Bourbon Street Pub is a required stop. Inside the pub, at night, muscle men strip down to their underwear and dance for dollars. If strippers aren’t your thing, head out back by the pool and perhaps you can chat up a tourist staying in the adjacent New Orleans guest house.
The Bourbon Street Pub is world renowned for hosting an annual New Year’s Eve extravaganza broadcast live and featuring a drag queen being lowered from the second story balcony in a giant size shoe. If it’s drag you seek, head down Duval Street to the Aqua Nightclub where shows are offered nightly, directed by a sassy Swedish lady named Inga. Tickets are $15 and reservations for private parties and non-profit groups are accepted.
Moving away from the gay scene, there are two important places of historical note to visit while in Key West. First, is the Harry S. Truman Little White House, 111 Front Street. This building served as the winter home for Truman, America’s 33rd President. Previously the Captain’s quarters for the U.S. Naval base, Truman, on doctor’s orders, made the space his oval office during the winter of 1946.
Visitors to the Truman Little White House can purchase tickets for a guided tour, watch videos of the President’s tenure or browse items in the gift shop. Most of the items reflect Truman’s personality and wit. “If you can’t convince them, confuse them,” or “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” are two sayings attributed to the former President printed on items for sale in the gift shop.
After touring Truman’s island home, head up one block and south a few more to see the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. This colonial Spanish influenced home and grounds are a popular wedding site as evidenced by the yearlong wait list to reserve a date. Hemingway was a prolific writer and world traveler who produced classic literature titles such as The Sun Also Rises, The Old Man and the Sea, A Moveable Feast, For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms.
While the streets of old town Key West are littered with chickens scurrying about, the Hemingway House is a cat sanctuary. More than 50 felines claim residency there, including the six-toe variety. Inside the house are numerous artifacts, antiques and displays of Hemingway’s travels, including a detailed account of his 1933 exploration of Africa – an exploration launched from Key West.
After taking a trip down memory lane with Harry and Ernest, lunch is in order. For an authentic Key West dining experience one must take a seat at the Blue Heaven. Located on the corner of Thomas and Petronia Streets in the Bahama Village, Blue Heaven offers a relaxing atmosphere with world famous key lime pie.
You can find the usual commercial restaurants (McDonald’s and Denny’s) throughout the Keys, but eating at homegrown, independent places affords the chance to get a real feel of culinary entrepreneurs heavily invested in the local economy. My husband used his Open Table app to secure us reservations for our final night in Key West. We were fortunate enough to get in at Sarabeth’s, a charming staple on the island. We had the Sunday only special – buttermilk encrusted fried chicken – served with hot attentive flare.
Sarabeth’s is an easy two-block walk from the Gardens Hotel and so too is Fausto’s Food Palace, an eclectic supermarket with a butcher on staff. This is where my husband got steaks for our first dinner in Key West. He cooked in our spacious cottage kitchen. Gardens Hotel owner Kate Miano personally designed the interiors of the cottages to provide a more modern, luxurious feel. The mattresses are Tempur-Pedic and one should never discount a good night’s sleep.
The focus our visit to the Florida Keys was the Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas, anchored by Fort Jefferson, is a remote destination 68 miles west of Key West. It’s nearly a three-hour voyage to the Dry Tortugas via ferry. A plane gets you there quicker. Advance reservations are strongly encouraged for both.
The Dry Tortugas are, simply put, spectacular.
Aquamarine-colored water along the islands make for ideal snorkeling, scuba and swimming conditions. Camping is permitted at Fort Jefferson, but carry plenty of water as, remember, the Tortugas are Dry.
Fort Jefferson, managed by the National Park Service, is a curious structure. Built in 1846, the fort was designed to give the U.S. a foothold in the Caribbean Sea to suppress piracy. A few of the cannons fired back in the day remain at Fort Jefferson where guided tours are offered explaining the history behind the moat and nearly 16 million bricks.
Fort Jefferson once served to house prisoners like Samuel Mudd, a doctor who conspired in the assassination of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Today, it is often the landing spot of Cuban refugees striving to touch an American shore.
Seven Successful Stops in Key West
1. Gardens Hotel, 526 Angela Street
1-800-526-2664 or 305-294-2661
Don’t miss: Sunday evening jazz & d’Vine wine gallery
2. Harry S. Truman Little White, 111 Front Street
The Buck Stops Here: Individual ticket prices start at $16.13.
3. Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, 907 Whitehead Street
Tip: Books for sale; cats roam free.
4. Blue Heaven, 729 Thomas Street
Must have: Key Lime Pie
5. Sarabeth’s Kitchen, 530 Simonton Street
James Beard award winning cooking.
6. Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry, Ticket booth: 240 Margaret Street,
1-888-212-5009 or 305-707-6057
Advance reservations strongly encouraged.
7. Bourbon Street Pub, 724 Duval Street
Drinks and dancers on the main drag.