By Leslie Sweet Myrick
Where else in the United States can you pass roosters on the sidewalk while walking to a fine dining establishment where you will be seated next to a dog in a stroller? Where, if you accidently leave a souvenir at your table, your waiter may personally deliver it to your hotel? This would be Key West, Fla.
Our favorite activities in Key West include eating, drinking, people watching, some fishing, and then some more eating and drinking. My husband and I love this island for its laid-back atmosphere, its sense of community and its restaurants and lively drinking establishments.
Our home away from home in Key West will always be Eden House (1015 Fleming St.; edenhouse.com). As its name implies, Eden House feels like more like a house than a hotel. The complex includes several buildings around a hammock area and a pool. Happy hour is complimentary every day from 4 to 5 p.m.
Although dining and drinking were foremost on our agenda, we did fit in quite a bit of sightseeing.
The first must-see is the "southernmost point" marker, and my advice is to get there as early as possible. Generally visitors manage to keep an orderly self-maintained line for picture taking. Sometimes a colorful local is on hand to assist with photos for tips.
On the way to the southernmost point is the Hemingway House (907 Whitehead St.), where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote from 1921 to '39. Today's residents include 100 cats, half of which are six-toed.
Another residence we visited was the Harry S. Truman Little White House (111 Front St.), where Truman spent winters during his presidency. We also enjoyed the Shipwreck Museum (1 Whitehead St.), where we learned how the island's pioneers made their fortunes by salvaging goods from shipwrecks.
My husband went out on a charter fishing boat and had a great experience, including battling a shark for 45 minutes. The shark won, which I am OK with because there's no perfect place in our house for a mounted shark.
Whatever you do during the days, be at Mallory Square for a sunset. Crowds cheer as the sun goes down, and the street performers are riding unicycles while juggling torches.
As for drinking establishments, there are really too many to mention, and you will have no trouble finding them. One of my favorites is "The Smallest Bar," which in the midst of Duval is about as wide as an arm span and has just a couple of barstools. Here the quarters are so crowded you will always meet your fellow patrons.
We also like the Green Parrot for live music and local flair. If you need to watch a sporting event, we recommend Jack Flats — which was half-filled with Bears fans.
My favorite restaurant in Key West was wherever we were dining at the time. Bagatelle (115 Duval) is a calm retreat for fine dining on Duval, where we saw a dog dining in a stroller.
The next night we tried Michaels (532 Margaret St.), a local favorite hidden in a residential area that flies in prime steaks along with having the best coconut shrimp appetizer ever.
At Blue Heaven (729 Thomas St.), we dined listening to live reggae and with toes in the sand (this restaurant is not on the water, it just has sand for its floor). For once on the island, we actually ventured away from seafood for the jerk chicken and were not disappointed. And Blue Heaven's key lime pie is the best on the island with about 3 inches of meringue.
One thing we love about Key West dining is the casual dress code. I never wore any of the dressier outfits I took. (I should have known better than to pack them.)
Even at Michaels, my husband was in his Bears T-shirt and no one raised an eyebrow.
Our final dinner at A&B Lobster House (700 Front St.) was the most elegant setting we experienced with a great view of the harbor. The service here was phenomenal. As we were walking home, I realized I had left my plastic souvenir cup from Captain Tony's at A&B. Neither of us could believe it when we checked out in the morning and the Eden House employee said our server had brought it by on his way home. This is a good example of Key West's community. Needless to say, we will always return to A&B when on the island.
I should disclaim that we will probably not take our kids to Key West until they are of drinking age. There's just not a whole lot for them to do, so it will remain our getaway.
Also, Key West is extremely liberal and tolerant to all lifestyles, so if you can't handle that, don't go. The island hosts several events throughout the year, including several boat races. We ended up there during the World Championship Power Boat Races, which was not on purpose, but my husband loved it.
I recommend checking the event calendar before booking a trip so you know what you are in for and to possibly avoid peak rates (http://web.keywestchamber.org/events).
Leslie Sweet Myrick works part-time in the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois. She lives in Champaign with her husband and two children.