Back in the late 70’s Jimmy Buffet wrote a song that goes –
Nibblin’ on sponge cake
Watchin’ the sun bake
All of those tourists covered with oil
Strummin’ my six-string
On my front porch swing
Smell those shrimp they’re beginnin’ to boil
Wastin’ away again in Margaritaville…
…and Key West couldn’t be a more appropriate location for a grill and bar that he has established and which bears the name. It was our first call after driving down in weather that spotted heavy, warm raindrops on and off and promised worse. By the time we got there it was hot and humid so the first Sunset Ale didn’t touch the sides.
Key West is one of those places you have to see, just for the sake of it and it’s OK if you don’t like it. We never tire of visiting although it has changed and hasn’t kept the qualities in the same measures these days that made it unique. As the southernmost part of mainland USA it has a special tropical quality that’s not quite Caribbean and not quite Colonial but is, for all its faults, original and irreverent. It has the dubious distinction of being the only town in America that was once the richest and once the poorest. Key West today shows glimpses of both; there are some supremely restored townhouses, most of which are given over to hotels or guesthouses, together with some authentic shanty housing tucked away beyond the main drags.
The main drag is Duval Street, which runs across the island. You can start your day watching the sunrise from the Southernmost Hotel on Duval Street and then see it set, usually spectacularly, at the other end on Mallory Square. The sunset is something of a Key West ritual, where we gather with dozens of others, drink frozen margaritas and watch the newbies applaud the disappearing sun. Strangely, I haven’t ever heard of anyone who watched it come up – at that time people are either asleep or in a coma. In between these two events we participate in the Duval Crawl, which is many things to many people. Duval holds the art galleries, tee-shirt shops, bars, restaurants, drag shows, tattoo parlours and Key Lime Pie outlets. All day long the Crawl comprises a continuous stream of pedestrians, cycles, motor scooters, pedal taxis, Harley-Davidsons – almost anything. We watched one guy ride a motorised coolbox down the street as we arrived. There was also a dog wearing shorts. Really. We had to collect a new Conch Republic flag for the pool in Sweden and make our traditional pilgrimage to Fast Buck Freddie’s, the main store on Duval.
The bars are world-famous; Sloppy Joe’s and The Hog’s Breath Salon are infamous, Rick’s Bar and Margaritaville are cool places and Irish Kevin’s is mayhem. Spring Break was at its height so the streets and bars were full of young things in sun dresses, flat shoes and sunburn while the bars were full of grey-faced, spotty youths on the verge of blowing chunks. It’s all part of the local character and whilst I adore the place I’m very, very glad I don’t live there.
The weather was closing in with heavy clouds threatening to ruin our sunset so we repaired to the Hard Rock Café for a classic burger and salad to debate whether or not we should go to Mallory. Despite a few drops of rain we decided we’d chance it, seduced by the ever-changing floor-show that drifted past in both directions. When we got there the margarita was as good as ever but the rain came, torrential and drenching everything. It eased up for a while and then came back so we abandoned it and drove back up to Little Torch. It was the first time we weren’t able to watch the stars overhead on that drive that we could remember. We weren’t as disappointed, however, as the Jewish couple who had planned a sunset wedding. As guests and wedding party huddled under sunshades for shelter on the deck the deluge arrived. The canapes were stacked and the drinks were queued ready for an unforgettable occasion. They won’t forget the weather that day.