Key West – Wonderfully Unique

If you live in the real world (loosely defined as everywhere outside Key West) and are considering a trip to the island city, you might want to know what it’s REALLY like before you hop on a plane.

A female impersonator high-steps through tires after being pushed in a shopping cart during the Great Conch Republic Drag Race Saturday, April 20, 2013, in Key West, Fla. The hijinks was a facet of the 10-day Conch Republic Independence Celebration that continues through April 28 and marks the Florida Keys 1982 "secession" from the United States, following the Border Patrol's surprise roadblock at the top of the Keys Overseas Highway. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Rob O'Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau/HO)

All it takes is attending a couple of local events – like the annual “drag race” — to realize Key West is located somewhere south of normal. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau).

All it takes is attending a couple of local events — like the annual “drag race” — to realize Key West is located somewhere south of normal. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

All it takes is attending a couple of local events — like the annual “drag race” — to realize Key West is located somewhere south of normal. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)
Actually, Key West is gloriously, outrageously abnormal — a place where wild chickens roam the streets and dogs are favored customers at more than one bar. A place where nobody thinks it’s strange to spot grown men dressed like Darth Vader or Marilyn Monroe (FYI, it’s possible to encounter them both on the same evening).The overall answer is simple: Key West is not normal. In a normal city, for example, locals don’t head for the nearest laundromat when they crave a great sandwich. They don’t drive around in cars painted like flamingos or mobile coral reefs. They don’t wear tiaras to lunch.

What else should you know about the island city?

EVERYBODY GETS ALONG. Key West has a genuinely warm, welcoming atmosphere that probably stems from its patchwork heritage. Early settlers included Cuban cigarmakers, New England shipbuilders, Bahamian salvagers, Navy men, southern merchants, and even a few wandering pirates. The current population ranges from recovering hippies to people fleeing the “real world” (see above), a long-established LGBT community and émigrés from virtually all over the world. And everybody generally gets along just fine.

NO PANTYHOSE (unless you’re a drag queen). Though parts of the island resemble a New England fishing village, with its gingerbread-trimmed Victorian houses and tidy picket fences, the laid-back atmosphere bespeaks its Caribbean roots. Businessmen don’t wear socks in Key West (let alone ties) and some don’t even wear shoes. Many island women wouldn’t dream of struggling into pantyhose — but if you’re a drag queen, feel free to flaunt them on stage or while competing in local pageants.

BASKET HOUNDS ABOUND. Bicycles and scooters are favored modes of transportation through the streets of Key West’s Old Town. And why not? Summer or winter, the breeze is likely to carry the spicy scent of seaweed, saltwater, and frangipani blossoms — something that can’t be enjoyed from a closed car. It’s not unusual to see a bicyclist pedal by with a dog in the bike basket. These are called basket hounds, a breed believed to be indigenous to local area.

TennWilliams_PubLib-web

Tennessee Williams, shown here on the front porch of his Key West home, was one of the creative spirits who seemingly appreciated the island’s lovely lunacy. (Photo from the Ida Woodward Barron Collection, Monroe County Public Library )

CREATIVITY RULES. The island’s creative eritage is a definite part of its charm. Known as a haven and inspiration for writers since before Tennessee Williams bought his house here more than 60 years ago, Key West is home to scores of published authors — including several Pulitzer Prize winners. An annual literary seminar, a month-long celebration of Williams’ life and work, writers’ groups and two great local bookstores all testify to the prevailing affection for wordsmiths.

THE WORLD’S LONGEST STREET. Many of the most interesting art galleries, shops, bars and eclectic restaurants can be found on Duval Street, Key West’s fabled “main drag.” Duval has been called the longest street in the world, since it stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean (a distance spanned by a 1.25-mile sea-to-sea rainbow flag in 2003). Particularly appealing is the “pink triangle” of LGBT clubs and bars in the 700 and 800 blocks.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS? NOT LIKELY! In Key West, it’s perfectly acceptable to state your occupation as “treasure hunter,” “poet,” “drag queen,” “street performer” or all of the above — without eliciting raised eyebrows. And chances are, you can’t think of any other place in the world where that’s true.

No, Key West is NOT normal. A bastion of lovely lunacy, it’s separated from mainland Florida by 42 bridges, more than 100 miles … and an attitudinal shift that must be experienced to be truly understood.

Now that you’ve learned a bit about the island’s quirky nature, there’s only one thing to do: head south and discover it for yourself!

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