Back slowly away from the sunset. Watching cats jump through a flaming hoop in Mallory Square while surrounded by jugglers, mimes and goggle-eyed snowbirds is not exactly an authentic Key West experience. Neither is drinking at Margaritaville, Jimmy Buffett's tequila palace on Duval Street, or Sloppy Joe's — which Ernest Hemingway would not recognize.
If you want to discover the Conch Republic like a native, you have to get off Duval Street and away from the parts favored by cruise ship passengers shopping for "pirate treasure" and spring breakers in mid binge.
Start with the most magical place on the island, a tiny rain forest hidden amongst the mansions and condos of Old Town. Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden (1 Free School Lane, off Simonton between Fleming and Southard, (305) 294-0015, www.nfsgarden.com) is like a cool, green cathedral of rare palms and ferns, cycads and bromeliads, black-eyed cockatoos and colorful macaws. There's no tour, no turnstile, no plastic: You put your $10 admission fee in the "honor box" and walk around on your own.
You may see cats, though they're not kin to Ernest Hemingway's six-toed feline Snowball, who famously populated his house on Whitehead Street; you may see people sitting in a dappled corner reading quietly. You will certainly see jewel-colored lizards and delicately tinted orchids. The only sounds are of running water, the silvery music of wind chimes and the occasional friendly "Hello!" from one of the candy-bright parrots. It's like being given the key to Eden.
Nancy Forrester is an artist: You can see her witty, ecologically minded work in her gallery. Key West is home to hordes of painters, sculptors and writers. If you can make it to the much-lauded Literary Seminar in January, you'll find yourself hobnobbing with New Yorker luminaries, novelists such as Alison Lurie, Ian McEwan and Joyce Carol Oates, and a gaggle of poets laureate. It fills up early, so get your application in now: www.kwls.org. Or you can participate in a workshop offered by the Studios of Key West (600 White St., (305) 296-0458, www.tskw.org) in the 100-year-old armory, a large and airy historic building at the edge of Old Town.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I recently taught a course on nonfiction at the Studios. But there are also workshops for aspiring short story writers, actors, poets and watercolorists, and weekly cultural events sponsored by the Key West Public Library.)
Digging the scene
With a slew of readings and exhibitions, Key West's creative scene is hotter than the Green Parrot on a Saturday night. The Green Parrot (601 Whitehead St.) is the dive of choice for locals looking for good live music, cheap drinks and an atmosphere which is, as Key West writer Joy Williams observed, charmingly shady. I found myself there after taking in an opening at the Lucky Street Gallery (1130 Duval St.). So did lots of the other people who'd come for a show by renowned abstract painter Debra Yates, then wandered over to the Parrot. As the Miami-based band Jahfé blasted peace-and-brotherhood reggae, people were talking about Yates' penchant for bright color, speculating that maybe island light gives artists a love of translucent greens and warm corals.
Key West offers calmer pleasures, too. I like to stroll around the streets of Old Town, especially right after one of the vehement (but brief) tropical showers. The little lanes of old conch houses and cypress cottages are empty. On Eaton, Elizabeth, Grinnell and Southard, with their green-shuttered antebellum mansions and white gingerbread houses, fences garlanded with magenta bougainvillea, there are often more free-range roosters than people. And if this isn't quiet enough for you, there's always the cemetery.
Seriously, the Key West Cemetery is weird and wonderful, located on the almost-imperceptible slope of Solares Hill, the island's highest point. Big-haired angels preside over family plots with above-ground tombs resembling miniature gothic churches, Roman temples or art deco hotels. Conch aristocrats and cigarmaking families, such as the Curries and the Gatos, share real estate with "General" Abe Sawyer, a famous midget, Manuel Cabeza, victim of a Ku Klux Klan lynching in 1921, and Willard Antonio Gomez, bootlegger and friend of Hemingway. Then there's the local hypochondriac Pearl Roberts, whose 1979 marker says "I Told You I Was Sick."
Looking for good eats
Somehow the boneyard makes me hungry. Fortunately, Key West is endowed with major good places to eat. For brunch and lunch, Sarabeth's (530 Simonton St., (305) 293-8181) is unmatched: real lemonade, proper Southern iced tea (with simple syrup, not sugar), lemon ricotta pancakes, pink shrimp, crab cakes and French toast. Best of all, you can eat outside and watch the banyan trees grow. About $30 for two.
For dinner, Santiago's Bodega is my favorite. Walk south from the cemetery. Once you cross Whitehead, Key West's Caribbean roots will show big time. Descendants of fighting cocks scratch in raked yards among hibiscus bushes, the smell of spiced stew wafts from wooden windows.
This is the defiantly untouristy Bahama Village, where kids play soccer in the road, where you, too, can perch on a veranda and wash down your tapas with white sangria. Santiago's (207 Petronia St., (305) 296-7691, www.santiagosbodega.com) is at once casual and elegant. Make a reservation and take a crowd. That way you can order many little plates — among them lamb patties, patatas bravas, marinated olives, stuffed mushrooms, asparagus — and taste everything. Two can dine and wine quite well on $50.
If the wind is blowing from the west you may catch the sound of steel drums and the tinny songs the cruise ships play when they dock. But here on Petronia, night falls peacefully, the scent of frangipani soothes the air, and the moon comes out shiny as a new quarter high in a velvet sky.
Diane Roberts teaches English and writing at Florida State University.