By Rick Skwiot
“Them” being the snowbirds and tourists (known locally also as “tourons”) who flock to the island in winter, crowd into its restaurants, demand New York-style service instead of the indigenous and more casual tropical variety, and drive the wrong way on one-way streets. (The last of which has inspired another oft-seen Conch Republic bumper sticker: “Don’t honk. I live here.”)
The ‘season’ stresses the small island (a mere two miles by four miles) with overpopulation, overcharging and over-consumption of booze and drugs. Despite the annual economic boom that comes with it, the season does make some locals want to shoot snowbirds for the sheer sport of it, though of I know of few actual cases. (It’s much more likely that a tourist would get run-over on his or her bike or mo-ped by a cement truck.)
So, practicing a sort of reverse or perverse snobbery, I eschew Key West in season. I much prefer the hot, lazy, laid-back, and less expensive summer. In fact, I’ve spent the last five summers here.
Low Cost, Low Stress
But I come during the hottest time of year for good reasons. Rents, restaurants, and most everything else cost less, the seas run warmer (between 85 and 90 degrees), and the locals (having temporarily regained control of their island) act friendlier. And it isn’t that hot. Really.
Most days it hangs around 88 to 90. But this is an island, itself hanging out in the Caribbean, closer to Havana than Miami. (A geographic fact that a former mayor once underscored for legislators in Tallahassee by water-skiing from Key West to Cuba.) As a result, beneficent sea breezes waft over the island. If you lie in the shade of a palm tree on the beach, you can keep comfortable even during the hottest part of the day.
But mornings and evenings are fine for all the free and nearly free outdoor activities favored by the frugal, off-season visitor.
Despite the cement trucks, the island is great for bicycling. Most of the shady, Old Town streets carry little traffic, and a bike trail runs along Key West’s southern shore, providing splendid Atlantic vistas.
Key West is also a good town for walkers. The tropical flora (from brilliant red-orange Poinciana trees to magenta bougainvillea to a plethora of tropical ferns and palms) is beguiling, the varied and creative architecture entrancing, and the people-watching fascinating—and not just on the beaches. (Though there too one can be fascinated, if that’s the word, by the flesh, in all shapes and amounts, both male and female, swallowing dental-floss bikinis.)
Eccentric Key West
The town’s reputation for eccentricity is well deserved, and a stroll through Old Town usually yields something bizarre and noteworthy for the student of aberrant human behavior. As Key West is the only city in the continental United States having never experienced frost, it attracts many who chose to sleep wherever they may fall, without fear of frostbite. (If I had to be homeless, this is certainly where I’d do it.)
But in this chemically dependent town, the line between home dwellers and the homeless often is quite thin. Some move back and forth across it, depending on recent fortunes and treatment. Unfortunately, a number of the homeless are also demented in one way or another. Not infrequently I’ll see these lost souls talking or screaming to themselves, or to ghosts, under the eaves of the public library across the street from my home, where they sleep.
But in Key West not all the homeless are lunatics, and not all the lunatics are homeless. Likewise, if were going to be a lunatic, there is where I’d do it. For it is a town built on tolerance, so much so that my friends here find nothing particularly abnormal about me. Or so they, tolerantly, say.
But if you are an intolerant sort, one who might object to public drunkenness, public nudity, perversion, drug use, loud music, loud motorcycles, pornography, and an active sex trade, perhaps Key West is not the place for you.
Other Strange Birds
But in addition to the human animal, other species reward scrutiny in Key West. The avid birdwatcher can spot not only a large variety of sea and shorebirds, from the Great Frigatebird to the rare Wurdemann’s Heron, but also numerous passerine birds seen in few other U.S. locales.
But at Key West the best nature watching is done underwater. For a buck and a half you can bike into Fort Zachary Taylor State Historic Site at the southwest tip of the island. On days when winds run westerly and the water laps to shore crystal clear, you can snorkel off a sand-and-coral beach to submerged rocks just a hundred yards out. There you’ll find giant jewfish, tarpon as long as you are, five-foot barracuda and beautiful tropical species: parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish and more. You can also spot lobsters, crabs, rays, and sharks.
Extraordinary snorkeling—with thousands of tropical fish and corals—can be had just six miles off shore, at the coral reef that guards Key West from Atlantic surf. But don’t put it off too many more summers. Environmentalists say the reef is dying and could be all but dead within a decade. Even in the mere five years since I first saw it, the reef has atrophied noticeably.
Key West is also home to some of the best sport-fishing in the world. But you don’t have to be a Hemingway, with a big boat and expensive gear, to catch fish. Fishing is free at Fort Zach, at the public pier on the south end of White Street, at Mallory Square, Garrison Bight, and numerous other sites around the island. Over the years I’ve caught (and ate, as opposed to released) snappers, jacks, porgies and more from these spots. I’ve also seen some sizeable permit, barracuda, kingfish, and hammerhead sharks taken from these close-in waters.
The best and most challenging saltwater sport to my mind, lobstering, requires but minimal gear (mask, snorkel, fins, gloves, hand-net, and measuring stick). No need to spend hundreds of dollars on rental boats, scuba gear, and sonar equipment. On numerous occasions I’ve culled my daily limit of six spiny lobsters in the waters surrounding Key West.
The annual two-day mini-season falls on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July (this year, the 25th and 26th). The regular season always runs from August 6 through May 31.
As for land sport, some of the best pick-up tennis anywhere can be found at Bayview Park, both mornings and evenings. You can also arrange lessons with the resident pro.
The Key West Golf Club, on adjacent Stock Island, provides a challenging and comely 18 holes with some of the most daunting rough imaginable—mangrove swamp. This, of course, is not free or even close to free, but summer rates are about half those of winter.
But for all there is to do on the island, perhaps what’s best about summers here is doing nothing. Lolling in body-temperature waters. Sitting in the shade of the tall pines at Fort Zach, reading, dozing, playing Scrabble. Watching the sun set red over the Marquesas. Drinking a beer at the Schooner Wharf bar as you study the moon’s reflection in the harbor and the sunburned Europeans strolling by. This is not low-stress living, this is no-stress living.
Except perhaps for hurricanes. The advent of hurricane season might put off some summer tourists. But hurricane watching—or, rather, weather watching—is the Conch Republic’s national pastime. Key West is a town not of sports bars but of weather bars, where, on rainy days, fishermen, dive-boat crewmembers, and construction workers sit elbow to elbow on barstools, eyes glued to The Weather Channel.
If you do come to Key West for the non-season, don’t worry about packing lots of clothes. On the beach, less is more. In town, cut-offs, tank tops, and flip-flops are worn into even the best restaurants.
And don’t bring the kids, unless you want to undermine the work ethic and moral values you’ve tried to instill in them. For this is a place where adults can act like children—or worse. Key West is a town built on liberty, license, and adult pleasures, on free and easy living, and on fun, particularly in summer, when the taint of Northern angst wanes.
It’s that feeling of liberty—of a real summer vacation, when you can do whatever you want and nobody much cares—that keeps me coming back.