Navigating Key West: a how to for you

KEY WEST

Yes, in this eccentric community you can sit on a bar stool on the sidewalk of tourist-choked Duval Street with a hand-lettered sign reading, "Dirty Jokes, $1 . . . I need beer."

And you can sit in the bed of your pickup in the motel parking lot, play your guitar and sing to entertain folks sitting in lawn chairs as they take a sip or a slug from bottles and cans.

You can cruise the town in your wedding gown with your bridesmaids, all in flip-flops. Or you can plod along wearing giant, inflated plastic shoes.

You can usually ignore the no-open-container laws and sip from the plastic go-cups into which tens of thousands of beers and watery rum punches are poured each day.

I know, because I saw all of this during a brief visit in March. Nearly everyone stretches the term "laid back" to suit their own definition. "This is a place you don't wind up by accident," says Carol Shaughnessy. She came here as a teenager on a February vacation from Minnesota's snows, 30 years ago, and decided to stay.

From locals such as writer-publicist Shaughnessy and my own experience, here are some dos and don'ts when in Key West:

Do it

>> Step off Duval by heading a couple of blocks east or west, into the residential neighborhoods of Old Town. Admire the Victorian and conch architecture, often framed by a brilliant palette of bougainvillea, poinciana and wisteria.

>> Get a copy of The Walking and Biking Guide to Historic Key West by Sharon Wells and then rent a bike. The Web site seekeywest.com has the text of three of the 14 tours in the $9 book.

If you're not confident to pedal by yourself, sign up for the two-hour Lloyd's Tropical Bike Tour ((305) 294-1882, lloyds tropicalbiketour.com), a 5-mile meander led by Lloyd Mager, former timeshare huckster who advises: "Get off the main street, enjoy the surroundings, that's my whole concept." Lloyd will feed you fresh coconut and tamarind seed and, without being prompted, play Strangers in the Night and Flight of the Bumblebee — on a conch shell.

. Have a bite at Blue Heaven (729 Thomas St.; www.blueheavenkw.com, (305) 296-8666), a casual restaurant specializing in Floribbean cuisine, served on picnic tables under shade trees. You'll be serenaded by island-style musicians — and by the roosters that wander freely and announce themselves regularly.

>> Sample nature at the Civil War-era West Martello Tower at Atlantic Boulevard and White Street, on the edge of the Atlantic shore (keywestgardenclub.com, (305) 294-3210). It is lovingly tended by the Key West Garden Club.

Another good spot to enjoy nature is at the 2-year-old, interactive Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center (35 E Quay Road at the end of Southard Street; floridakeys.noaa.gov; search "eco-discovery"; (305) 809-4750).

>> Pair a taste of 19th century merchant marine life by ogling the sailing ships at the Historic Seaport with a taste of a cool brew at the Schooner Wharf. The Historic Seaport is at the Key West Bight, a marina off Caroline Street roughly between Simonton and Grinnell streets, at the northwest end of the island. Schooner Wharf bar is on the Bight's boardwalk, at 202 William St. (www.schoonerwharf.com, (305) 292-9520).

>> Sample the vibrant arts scene at the Key West Art Bar (901 Caroline St.; keywestartbar.com, (305) 296-0424), which offers a gallery, jewelry displays, readings, live music, beer and wine, and the occasional free movie. It's also home to the whimsical Art Slut line of merchandise.

Don't do it

>> Eat a slice of what is called key lime pie if it is green. Instead, run away, because the juice of these limes is closer to dull yellow.

>> Leave the moped rental lot until you've had a safety lesson. If the rental agent tries to dismiss your concerns, know that some local EMTs consider busy seasons such as spring break to be the guaranteed overtime pay that finances their vacations.

>> Go to the beach at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park without flip-flops or water booties . The shoreline can be rocky.

>> Pick up the cats at the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. The nearly 60 cats tolerate visitors well, but the staff does not want the cats to follow anyone off the property.

>> Wear a tie or panty hose. Key West Formal might just be your good flip-flops.

Robert N. Jenkins, former travel editor of the Times, first visited Key West more than 30 years ago.

Navigating Key West: a how to for you 05/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 6:08pm]

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