Word of Mouth: Key West
Word of Mouth: Key West
An island escape with everything from design hotels to local rum, pottery classes and fine dining
by Leora Novick
Located at the tip of the stretch of islands making up the Florida Keys, Key West is a destination in its own category. Known for its baby boomer population and party-fueled drag along Duval Street, it’s held a reputation as a bachelor party haven and retiree village. Although the two might not seem to blend naturally, it’s a testament to the youthful spirit that pervades the island. With that energy has come a stream of creative endeavors to the southernmost tip of Florida, breathing new life into the city. While Hurricane Irma devastated large swaths of the Keys, Key West remained lucky. Although damage was evident, the island was back open for tourism as soon as 1 October, and residents seem optimistic about the future. Now—more than ever—is the time to visit, bringing tourism dollars back down to a city that depends on it and celebrating the resilience of the people that make it so memorable.
The Gates Hotel Key West
Begin your stay at the entrance of the island by sleeping at The Gates Hotel Key West. A former motel, this boutique property has been reborn as a thoughtful respite from the buzz of Key West’s Old Town. Between unique local partnerships with artwork by De La Gallery and prohibition worthy drinks mixed with Key West Legal Rum, there's a delight around every corner. Savor the flavor of the island with Cuban-inspired bites at the onsite food truck The Blind Pig or cool off in the Scandinavian-meets-island rooms. From the whitewashed bed-frames to books on rum running, to the custom printed burlap bed runners, each corner of this hotel has been consciously designed.
One thing to notice about the island is that people have dreamed up some truly creative modes of transportation. For those who hate to walk, Key West is a paradise of bicycles, mopeds, pedicabs, trolleys, millennial pink taxis, and other creative transports. Grab your preferred method of wheels and begin your island tour on Stock Island. Home to the Key West Botanical Garden and Hogfish Grill, a local eatery that is unmissable for its unpretentious air and namesake sandwich, Stock Island is also the original location of COAST, a creative agency founded by Billy Kearins. Stop by for a hand-printed tee with Hemingway’s steely gaze and an ice-cold Modelo. The brand recently opened a more central outpost on Whitehead Street in Old Town, but the sprawling, ramshackle Stock Island venue is where the brand’s creative energy can truly be felt.
Key West Pottery
Turn your attention to Old Town, the maze of streets that make up the bulk of tourism in the Keys. While Duval Street holds a reputation as the party center of the island, it does hold special pockets worth exploring. Take the street east, nearly to the edge of the island and you’ll find Key West Pottery, Kelly Lever and Adam Russell’s colorful tribute to the spirit of Key West.
Eaton Street Seafood Market
Afternoons in the Key West heat were made for a leisurely lunch at Eaton Street Seafood Market. The former gas station is now an Art Deco homage to fish, and they offer some of the freshest bites on the island. Order at the counter where you can point to your fish of choice, and don't skip the homemade Key Lime mustard sauce. Keep your cool by following the shade down Eaton Street and over to Audubon House. Although misleadingly named, this is not the former home of John James Audubon (although he did visit). The former Geiger mansion was actually erected in 1846, just after a major hurricane destroyed much of the area. A fitting spot to reflect on the destruction of Hurricane Irma across the Keys, the home is now a restored museum dedicated to the period when Audubon visited the Geigers in the pursuit of some of his most famous paintings. The back gardens are a lush haven with open air porches where guests are encouraged to sit and observe, the way John James might have once.
Evenings were meant to be taken as slow as the day in Key West, and there's no better place to dine than at Pepe’s, the oldest eating house in the Keys. Weather permitting, sit in the back garden where locals gather for a sundowner and a half-dozen Gulf oysters. Just a moment's walk to the water you can join the crowds to applaud the sunset at Mallory Square, or just as easily not. No one will rush you out at this joint and the drinks will keep flowing as long as you've got stamina.
Images by Leora Novick