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GO WEST... IT'S THE KEY TO GETTING A GREAT TRIP.

It Was a truly amazing sunset. A deep red ball of flame, slowly sinking into a tranquil sea.

And in front of it stood two jugglers, a fire-eater and a Frenchman coaxing a small cat called Claude to ride a monocycle.

Oh yes, and 500 other people - tourists and locals - gazing intently at the horizon until the moment that the sun dipped behind the ocean...when a fat man in a kilt played Scotland The Brave on bagpipes.

This was Key West, Florida - the southernmost tip of America. And probably the most eccentric little town in the United States.

Take the cemetery. There's none of this "rest in peace" business on the gravestones. One man's tombstone epitaph reads: "I told you I was sick."

And a long-suffering wife had her husband's headstone inscribed: "At least I know where he's sleeping tonight." The 30,000 residents of Key West delight in their difference. When the police, US Customs and the immigration authorities erected a roadblock outside the town 15 years ago, enraged locals declared independence.

They proclaimed Key West the capital of the Conch Republic (named after the chewy shellfish found in its waters) and half-heartedly declared war on the US, immediately surrendered ...and asked for pounds 750,000 in foreign aid.

The dream may have died - but the flag lives on. Above shops, houses and even the lawyers' offices on Whitehead Street you still see the Republic's fluttering emblem, a giant conch on a rainbow background.

Key West's isolated position - it's closer to Cuba than to Miami and the rest of Florida - has attracted writers and artists for years. Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls here and used the town as the setting for To Have And Have Not. His white-painted wooden house is open as a museum, although inspecting his old tables and chair is a lot less fun than heading for Sloppy Joe's, a bar he frequented.

There, all day and night, a singer with a guitar knocks back beers as he belts out bawdy songs about Hemingway's three great loves - women, fishing and booze.

Drinking is one of the great pleasures in Key West. In Duval Street it seems every other building is a bar - from spit-and-sawdust pubs to elegantly restored old hotels.

And the town has a fantastic juice bar, where every kind of fruit can be crushed, blended and mixed with frozen yoghurt to form a delicious shake.

For the health- conscious Americans, the staff will even add powdered vitamins and zinc. We took ours straight.

Great food is part of the Key West tradition. Conch (pronounced conk) is rarely off the menu.

A rubbery sea snail, it looks disgusting. But Key Westers chop it, season it and fry it into fritters or use it as the base for a creamy chowder.

The other local delicacy is Key Lime Pie. Spanish settlers in the 16th Century grew limes and this sweet pie, a bit like cheesecake, is a good use for the plentiful crop.

As always in America, the meals are good value and massive. Most nights we shared one starter and were still too full for the obligatory Key Lime Pie at the end. Wandering from restaurant to restaurant is fun. Even at busy times there is no need to book. And no one seems to dress up much for dinner.

Getting around the Florida Keys is easy. Our package with Jetlife Holidays included a convertible jeep.

We simply pulled the roof down in Miami and blasted down US Highway 1 for three hours until we hit Key West.

With the wind in our hair, the Atlantic Ocean on one side, the Gulf Of Mexico on the other and country music on the jeep's stereo, we felt we were starring in our own road movie.

Key West has accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets, from backpackers' hostels to luxury hotels.

With Jetlife, we stayed in the Sheraton Suites, east of the town centre. Each suite has its own bedroom, bathroom and sitting room equipped with fridge, sink and microwave. The hotel provides a free minibus shuttle to Mallory Square - home of the nightly sunset show - if you don't fancy the 35-minute walk.

Oh, and if fire-eaters and performing cats aren't your thing, we found a perfect place to watch the sunset in peace on a beach just down from the hotel.

I'm not saying where. We want it to ourselves when we go back.

HOW TO GET THERE

Jetlife Holidays (01322 614801) have fly-drive packages with pre-booked hotels in the Florida Keys from pounds 489 pp, pounds 189 child. The price includes scheduled flights from London, Birmingham and Manchester to Miami, car hire and seven nights' accommodation. Further information: Florida Tourist Office: 18-24 Westbourne Grove, London W2 Tel: 0171 727 1661.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Barnes, Lucy
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 27, 1997
Words:800
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