Key West is a World Apart

Marilyn Monroe impersonator

Words by Barbara Bowers | Photo by Sue Swank

On this southernmost island in the United States, it seems these feisty, free-range fowl party ‘round the clock with visitors, who also can’t get their wake-up calls in sync with normal sleeping habits.

Duval Street in the heart of Old Town Key West (and the 'longest street in the world', which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico) is notorious for letting the good times roll until dawn, but daybreak is not the time to retire from this sinful seaport city. Sunup is also full of excitement: Cuban coffee shops open, fish bite, birds fly and boats gear up for SCUBA diving along the only living coral reef in the United States.

From snorkeling the near-shore waters to sunset cruises and world-class dining on balconies that overlook Key West’s harbors, time spent on the island is time wrapped in every shade of blue water and sky. Embraced by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, most everything underwater is protected here; conch shells and coral, for instance. On terra firma, tiny Key deer and yes, even raucous roosters are protected species along this international flyway, a migratory path for hummingbirds, hawks and most things winged.

Key West tours

Then of course, permeating the island is an anything goes, positive mental attitude accidentally protected by the island’s remote, tropical location at the end of the Overseas Highway—a 150-mile, two-lane sliver of concrete and bridges recently designated an All American Road. Closer to Cuba than to Miami, Key West is the absolute, dead end of the road; a vehicular lifeline so critical to the island’s economy that in 1985, it declared war on the United States, when tourism came to an abrupt halt following road blocks set up by federal agencies to snag drug smugglers. Crafty city officials retaliated, though, by announcing to the world that Key West was seceding from the Union. Overnight, the two-by-four-mile island reinvented itself as the Conch Republic, an independent island nation, and it demanded one million dollars in foreign aid to compensate for the loss of income.

The money was never forthcoming, obviously, but the publicity stunt immediately ended the road blocks, and ever since, Conch Republic Days have been celebrated in April, with mock sea battles between the Conch Republic Navy’s flagship, Schooner Wolf, and the United States Coast Guard.

Somewhere, there must be a world record for a military encounter as bizarre as this one.

Attractive though the Conch Republic mindset is, weather is a bigger attraction, and potential visitors should never assume that weather forecasts for Miami are the same as for Key West. Indeed, South Florida's daily summer showers are not the norm for Key West. The island's tropical micro-climate ensures sunny skies, balmy breezes, lush foliage and a minimal temperature swing of ten degrees almost year round. Daytime highs hover at or near 90 degrees Fahrenheit; nights are 80.

In the winter, temps are usually 80 during the day, with nights at 70. But when bitter weather fronts ravage North America in January, the occasional cold snap can usher in a rare week of 60 degree days. And in spite of 2005's record-breaking, 41-degree nights on January 12 and 13, Key West is the only location in the continental US that never freezes. Never.

With stats like these, swimming suits and shorts are fashionably correct outdoors or in. In fact, sarongs run the gamut from beach wraps to wedding dresses and flip flops--the ever present footwear of golden-tan girls and buff-muscle boys--go both ways, too.

Naturally, sway is in order for those who know the difference between high-fashion flips and low-fashion flops.

Although tongue-in-cheekiness applies to some of Key West’s records, some people are dead serious about the world championships they pursue in power boat races offshore the island each November, or the Grand Slam record catches of permit, tarpon and bonefish made in these waters; or the amount of sales in restaurants and bars along Duval Street, where arguably, more beer is consumed in a two-mile stretch than in any other two miles on the planet.

permit fishing

Photo by Steve Bly

Barbara Bowers writes for national, regional and local newspapers and magazines; she's the author of several books and hosts 'Keys Reality Check', a real estate talk show for the Keys Radio Group. Visit

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