Florida: Key West for Casual Laid Back Good Food, Good Culture and the Sea

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Florida: Key West For Casual Laid Back Good Food, Good Culture and the Sea

By Lucy Komisar

Florida: Key West for casual laid back good food, good culture and the sea

Florida: Key West for casual laid back good food, good culture and the sea

In 1971, Mike Eden, a Marine Vietnam vet, went to Key West on a spring break from Michigan State where he’d been on the GI bill for 7 years. Two-thirds of Duval Street, the main drag, was boarded up. He wasn’t discouraged. He came back twice more and discovered the Gibson hotel, a clapboard building that had been built in 1924. The Gibsons wanted to sell it. Eden scrounged and borrowed for the down payment and closed the deal in 1975.

In the following years, he bought the neighboring conch houses, a parking lot, a pool. The houses are traditionally clapboard because the first settlers took their wooden boats apart to build dwellings. The Bahamians added verandas and shutters. Now “Eden House” is an intimate conch house collection, surrounded by Areca palms, black olives, Shady Lady trees and corn plants. Mike told us the story sitting in a swing on the porch of the conch house we were staying in. It was built in the 19th century and still keeps its private entrance.

Eden House — our room in the conch house, and pool!

Most of the guests are Americans, but you’ll always hear a foreign accent. Germans like it as a gemütliche Gasthaus. Happy hour is 4pm at the pool, which is open at night. (There’s a webcam to check out the action.) But no noise is allowed on the grounds before 10am or after 10pm. Coffee and fruit are available 24 hours a day in the lobby. Our room had a fridge, microwave and coffee maker. Clocks are backwards to suggest you ought to forget time!

Key West is the kind of place where people like to stay in small hotels and bed & breakfasts. It’s casual and not pretentious, though often very comfortable, and of course the ambience and the 70s weather helps.

Most of what you do, what we did, was done out of doors.

Casa Marina cooking class – and seared tuna salad

We had a fabulous lunch at the “Sun Sun” café on the beach patio of the legendary Casa Marina. Beyond the terrace were people on beach chaises and hammocks, some in kayaks in the shimmering sea, and a gaggle perched on jet skis. Swarms of sea gulls swooped through the palms over the white umbrellas.

To one side was a cooking class, with participants happily eating the results. The piped music was moody Jamaican, Bob Marley. The menu was surprisingly affordable, most dishes at $15: blackened snapper, tuna, mahi mahi or shrimp. My seared tuna was delicious. A terrific place for lunch.

Near the Casa Marina are public hard-surface tennis courts, and we played there several times during the week. I loved glancing at the beach and the palms as I waited for a serve.

Sunset cruise – wine and glorious colours

We never miss a Key West sunset cruise. Because the island is the tiny end point of Florida, there’s the Atlantic on the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west. (The place where they meet is marked by a sign!) It means you can sail right into the sunset. People watch it from Mallory Square, but it’s fun to go out on a boat – especially when it’s the Danger Charters Wind and Wine Sunset Cruise, that includes a generous tasting of champagne plus eight high-end reds and whites. And nibbles of cheese and crackers, sausage and crudités. The pièce de résistance, of course, is the extraordinary blaze of colors when the sun goes down.

There’s plenty of chance for the more traditional “theatrical experience.” The advantage of Key West as a place that appeals to an arty community is that there’s a host of performing talent living there. Or happy to visit. The Red Barn Theatre was built as a carriage house in 1829, was used as a playhouse at various times in the 40s to 60s, and became the Red Barn Theatre in 1980. It puts on new plays and revivals, doing work by many prominent playwrights. We were pleased that during our week it featured “Forbidden Broadway,” that clever, charming, affectionately biting parody of Broadway musicals that Gerard Alessandrini has staged in New York for years. This production directed by Becky Barta was as good as any I’ve seen, speaking as a critic and member of the New York Drama Desk.

Forbidden Broadway (photo by Mike Marrero)

It included a great spoof of “Les Miz” with painted wooden flags carried by a troupe (Marjorie Paul-Shook, J.B. McLendon, Eric Cole and Gayla Morgan) announcing that they will be “ready when the British come.” (An inside theater joke.) And complaining about seeking tickets to “The Lion King,” “a story so bizarri, it’s Hamlet on safari.” Also “Lisa,” brassy and breathless, dressed in sequins on chiffon, intones “I’m Lisa one-note… your ears will be ringing in pain, that’s why my friends snort cocaine.”

Among my favorites this time: Annie, with a dangling cigarette, complaining, “I’m 30 years old tomorrow and I haven’t worked since I played Annie, since I was 10!” And a send-up of wordsmith Stephen Sondheim which turns “Into the Woods” into “Into the words that trip you up and fry your brain and sprain your tongue.” Marjorie Paul-Shook and Gayla Morgan do a wonderful Chita Rivera-Rita Moreno rivalry (Chita did the stage production of West Side Story, but Rita got the film role.) And more! Sam Willmott accompanied with panache at the piano.

Those were not the only high-end local talents. One day at cocktail time we drove to the Marriott Beachside Tavern N Town to see and hear Carmen Rodriguez and Michael Thomas in a few hours of mellow cabaret. Carmen’s slightly jazzy honeyed voice caresses songs such as “Let’s fall in love” and “The look of love.” Michael at the piano and keyboard is a whole orchestra. Carmen has a perky, bubbly personality, and fans come in and hug her. Carmen: this is a hug!

If you go
Eden House
1015 Fleming Street (in the historic center).
Key West, FL 33040-6962. (305) 296-6868.
39 rooms including two full apartments. Prices from Jan mid-season and holidays $115 to $400, more for apts. Bike rentals range from $10 for 12 hours to $55 for a week.

Casa Marina
1500 Reynolds Street, Key West, FL 33040. (305) 296-3535.

Danger Charters Wind and Wine Sunset Cruise
Buy tickets online or at the booth at Mallory Square at the dock opposite the Westin hotel, south of Whitehead and Greene. (305) 304-7999 or (800) 979-3370. $75; 2-hour cruise leaves at 5; wine, beer, soft drinks, healthy snacks.

Red Barn Theatre
319 Duval Street, Key West, FL. (305) 296-9911.

Marriott Beachside Tavern N Town
3841 N Roosevelt Blvd., Key West, FL (outside the historic center).
(305) 296-8100 or (800) 546-0885.

Carmen Rodriquez on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 5 to 9.
From 5 to 7, tapas for $7 and two-for-one wine.

Airport: Several major air carriers fly to Key West International Airport. Many flights are routed through Miami International Airport, although some smaller airlines fly to Key West from other cities in Florida and the Bahamas. It’s a three hour drive through the Keys from Miami Airport.

Florida Keys Tourism information.


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