I knew I had become a “local” on the island of Key West when I recognized Chris Peterson, drag queen extraordinaire, in his street clothes walking to work at La-Te-Da on Duval Street. I had seen the musical, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” twice at the city’s Waterfront Playhouse, and Peterson was a member of the supremely talented cast. I felt like I had seen a Hollywood celebrity!
In June, I concluded a year of teaching at Key West High School and felt bittersweet about leaving the grand, four-mile-in-circumference Southernmost City. I had discovered opportunities I did not know about despite having lived in Islamorada in the Florida Keys for 23 years.
While in the past, I had explored historic and scenic Fort Zachary Taylor State Park which featured a renowned beach, snorkeling and a Civil War-era fortification, and the adjacent and informative Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, I had never attended a free lecture at the Eco-Discovery Center until one evening I listened with a full house to a marine biologist who spoke about the endangered smalltooth sawfish.
Truman Waterfront Park has sprung up around these two edifices with a free playground and sprayground for children and an amphitheater for theatrical events. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum stands silent in the water, offering Bingo on Wednesday evenings. For $1 a card, guests enjoy this simple entertainment while bar offerings and a Bingo break for the nightly sunset make it divine.
On my last evening in Key West, I wandered the Nature Preserve Trail next to 1800 Atlantic, a residential building. A few parking places on the opposite side of the street offer access. A stroll beneath the shade canopy leads to mangroves and ocean vistas with glimpses of birds and marine life among the greenery. The short boardwalk ends at the beach where egrets and herons scavenge a meal on a sandbar. A few benches encourage sitting a spell for reflecting on how peaceful this little getaway spot really is.
Art is everywhere in Key West, especially in numerous galleries on and off Duval Street, from funky chickens and roosters carved of wood to masterpieces by photographers, painters and sculpture. As an arts advisory board member, I was aware of art installations at the Key West International Airport on North Roosevelt Boulevard but had never been there. A nice surprise was one-hour free parking for passenger pickup. Arriving prior to the 8 p.m. airport closing, I enjoyed mosaics, sculptures and paintings in the departure terminal with placards depicting the artwork title and artist’s name. The airport lies beside the ocean and I could easily imagine a tourist’s awe after grabbing his bag-on-wheels, departing the terminal and walking along the ocean to an adjacent resort or vacation rental.
There really is no reason for a car in Key West. A bicycle, moped or comfortable pair of shoes get you most places you want to go, and hotel shuttle buses, taxis and pedi-cabs are numerous. A free bus service takes people around Duval Street (www.carfreekeywest.com/duval-loop-bus) while the city’s public bus at $1 a ride takes one farther afield, to the Key West Golf Club or Tennessee Williams Theater on Stock Island, for example.
On a teacher’s salary, I treated myself to theater at the Red Barn, Waterfront Playhouse and Tennessee Williams, and recommend visitors partake as well. Seeing “Kinky Boots,” with its moving display of talent – literally, as in the conveyor belt dancing scene – elevates one’s mood.
Dining around Key West is delightful as well, but as a local’s suggestion, try Mattheessen’s, a family-owned cookie, fudge and ice cream shop where everything is homemade by family members and staff with fine ingredients that satisfy a sweet tooth. The family business celebrates 25 years this year after beginning as a coffee shop and adding sweetness along the way.