“KEY WEST,” the words themselves taste like salty air, cold daiquiris and sun-brilliant adventure. The Coconut Republic is one of those rare iconic destinations where the reality matches the myth.

Drop whatever you are doing, and plan a vacation to Key West. Everything you love about Key West is just as it should be. Hurricane Irma, amazingly, passed the historic vacation spot by, doing relatively little damage, before hammering the keys a few dozen miles to the north. And what damage was done is already fixed, repaired and restored. Believe me; Key West is open for business.

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There may never have been a better time to travel to the spectacular southern tip of Florida. Some travelers, worried by the news reports back in September, have changed plans or avoided the island since the storm. The result is those that take the plunge get to enjoy everything that Key West has to offer, with fewer lines and fewer crowds, all the while basking in the enthusiastic gratitude of the “Conchs” (slang for locals and natives). Key West has always been about the people anyway. It is not the only place in the world with beautiful waters, reefs and weather—but it is the only place that is Key West. In fact, if you have not been to Key West in recent years, you may be surprised to see what a fantastic job they have done balancing the growth of the lovely, full-service resorts that now ring the island with maintaining the integrity of the Key West experience. 

The Pier House Resort & Spa is an exceptional example of what it’s like to be able to freely wander and explore the island, only to return to your safe and quiet private oasis. Pier House is especially nice in that it is the waterfront property that marks the Western end of Duval Street. A classic evening bar crawl, no matter how much fun you have on a rating scale from “one light beer” all the way up to “party like Hemingway,” you will still be able to easily find your way home. All the better, too, is that the resort offers unlimited rides on their private open-air vehicle that traverses the island as often as you might need it.

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A world-wide panoply of travelers means that you hear different languages from every passer-by. As an experiment, just walking down one block of Duval Street, I tried to guess where people hailed from. You can’t tell by appearance, we are all in beach shorts and vacation clothes, but I recognized accents and language and counted Germans and Australians right away. A pair of thickly-accented Israelis wanted to sell me a hand cream sourced from the Dead Sea. We stopped to look at baubles to bring home to the kids and the shopkeepers in three shops were Russian, Australian and then re-located Midwesterners. And just as we left that block, a Polish family asked us for directions (I had to ask where they were from).

After a quick change back at the room, it’s a one-block stroll from the resort, and I’m getting on a boat to go scuba diving with the great guys at Captain’s Corner. The day I was there, there were six diving customers sharing two guides. My group of three felt like a United Nations subcommittee; I was partnered with Volkan, a German of Turkish heritage, and Yumi, a Brazilian of Japanese heritage. Conversations between dives were very interesting, and neither of my dive companions was in a hurry to get back to their native lands.

The Florida Keys are famous with scuba divers for the clarity of the water, and even though this particular morning was a bit cloudy, we still marveled at a giant, bug-eyed puffer fish with lots of personality, some big barracuda, a half-dozen friendly lobsters and a beautiful ray that left its place on the sandy bottom and disappeared into the distance, contrail-like streamers of sand hovering in the ocean behind it. Diving is a calorie-burner, and a great excuse to pamper yourself. The Pier House Spa offers all the standards and the Duval Detox Body Wrap was incredibly invigorating!

Key West is a foodie paradise. The concentrated excellence of the cuisine also delivers a crisis as well, that being that it’s impossible to try everything that you should and most places are so exceptional you want to go back for more. I will offer these spectacular options, but you can’t go wrong. First, we always start at least one day with breakfast at Blue Heaven. Famous for outdoor dining, and roosters running wild, Blue Heaven has managed to stay true to its roots. The Richard’s Very Good Pancakes have built a small culinary empire for this family-owned restaurant, so be sure to order them.

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For a casual lunch that will shock your taste buds, find your way to Garbo’s Grill, a semi-permanent food truck stationed next to Grunt’s Bar, a small house serving sangrias and other beverages. We had the soft tacos, starting with the Korean BBQ. It delivered a symphony of flavors including marinated beef short rib, napa cabbage, scallions, carrots, daikon radish, cilantro, citrus soy dressing and sriracha. We shared bites and asked, “Is it possible that there could be better street food than this?” And then we tried the Yum Yum Shrimp Taco, with mango ginger habanero glazed shrimp served cayo style, and our tastebuds surrendered, admitting that this taco was even better than the last.

Eaton Street Seafood Market is perfect for a late-night stop. Visually, it’s a hard-to-describe mish-mosh of neon and 80s-style rounded glass blocks on a building that I am guessing was once a gas station. Inside there are humble, refrigerated display cases with all seating outside. Don’t blink at the price on the $20 lobster roll, every penny will come back to you in flavor twice-over. Of course, the bars are amazing. Many of them have names that are already well-known to travelers before they visit, including The Bull And Whistle, the Green Parrot, Sloppy Joe’s, and, for some reason, I am drawn to the open-air chaos of Willie T’s.

If you have chosen to make the Pier House your home-away-from-home, be sure to take the time to eat at their waterfront restaurant, One Duval. It takes a lot to compete with all the rest that Key West has to offer, and One Duval does not disappoint. The Caribbean Spiny Lobster Tail is fresh and juicy and perfect, as are the Coconut Curry Scallops served in ginger soy vinaigrette. If you have the willpower to stick with the salads, you will still be overjoyed. Both the Caesar and the Caprese salads are perfectly executed. Be sure to order the Key Lime Tarte Martinis, with house-vanilla vodka, Keke liquor, muddled lime and rimmed with a graham cracker crust, our delightfully friendly, Bulgarian waiter talked us into it, and I am so glad he did.

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The treasures you buy will delight both you and those you bring gifts home to. We especially enjoyed getting edible goodies to share. These included rum distilled on premises at the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery, coffee roasted on premise at Red Buoy Coffee (we bought donuts too, but they disappeared somehow on the car ride home), and we dropped back into the shop at Blue Heaven to buy a loaf their Banana Bread, yep, baked on premises. 

As far as clothes and other gifts there are delights everywhere. Two standouts for us were Wanderlust Boutique KW, where we bought adorable island-style dresses for our nieces, and Tucker’s Provisions, where the owner had a great display of men’s and women’s goods. Leather travel bags and shave kits, as well as hats and shirts for the men, and beautiful dresses and handbags for the ladies. Tucker’s is a place where Indiana Jones might have shopped between quests, and gearing up there added to the excitement of the trip.

One factor that strikes me in Key West is that, once you leave your cozy resort, the rest of the island is frozen in time. The local “conchs” are always laid-back, and always a little wacky. The town has an anything-goes nonchalance that people love.

Key West was an early gay-friendly destination. Having met with innumerable destination marketers, I know that today, every community and attraction in America now has some outreach to gay travelers, among many other specialty groups. In Key West, however, there are still innumerable rainbow flags and even rainbow crosswalks to trumpet a message of inclusiveness. Key West is more than an inclusive place; it’s a place that brings people together. In the year 2000 the Mayor and Commission of Key West proclaimed that the official philosophy was “One Human Family.” For me, that’s Key West.



Pier House Resort and Spa features special Key West vacation packages including a Florida resident rate. One Duval Street, Key West, Florida, 305-296-4600; pierhouse.com.  

Eaton Street Seafood Market features a to-die-for lobster roll. 801 Eaton St., Key West, Florida, 305-295-3474; kwseafood.com. 

Blue Heavenwas opened by a pair of free spirits, Suanne and Richard. 729 Thomas St., Key West, Florida, 305-296-8666; blueheavenkw.com. 

Garbo’s Grill serves up delicious food in the sanctuary of a quiet courtyard. 409 Caroline St., Key West, Florida, 305-304-3004; garbosgrillkw.com. 

Glazed Donuts and Red Buoy Coffee pairs the perfect breakfast coffee and donuts. 420 Eaton St., Key West, Florida, 305-294-9142; glazeddonuts.com.