I love the beach in the winter. And by “the beach,” I pretty much mean any beach. But I have never thought of winter as being anything but “off season” for beach destinations. I mean, you go to the beach when it is warm — or hot — so that you can wear your swimsuit and shorts and tank tops and flip-flops and maybe even get in the water. Summer is beach season, right?
Not in Key West, Florida. In Key West, summer is the off season. That means that right now is prime time for visiting this 4-mile-long-by-1-mile-wide piece of paradise.
I discovered this last July went I was invited to participate in a “fam tour” of Key West. That’s short for “familiarization tour,” an event to give travel writers a chance to learn first-hand about a place, so that they can then write about that place to let their readers know why they should — or, I guess in some instances, should not — plan a vacation there.
I’m not a travel writer. So I’d never been on a fam tour before. But I was thrilled to get to go on this trip, and I have been waiting for exactly the right time to write about it. Today I got an email informing me that beginning May 3, American Airlines will be offering year-round, daily non-stop service between Key West and DFW International Airport on E175 jets. American also has increased air service into Key West from Philadelphia and Chicago.
(E175 aircraft have seating for 64 main cabin and 12 first-class passengers.)
So, what does that mean? Well, it means that it’s easier for people in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to get to Key West now. And I promise, you want to go to Key West.
Let me tell you about my trip.
As I said, I went to Key West in July. That’s off season in Key West (But don’t think that means no one’s there. It was still pretty crowded.) It’s not off season because it’s too hot; I don’t think it ever actually got out of the 70s when I was there. Okay, maybe it hit the low 80s.
The reason summer is off season for Key West is the humidity. It can get pretty intense. But, hell! I’m from Texas! We know how to handle a little humidity! It also tended to rain for awhile every afternoon, but I didn’t mind that either, to be honest.
The three guys that were on the trip all stayed at a men-only gay guest house called The Equator Resort. The other woman on the trip and I stayed at The Gardens Hotel. It was amazing! It has a variety of rooms — suites, cottages, guest rooms — along with a heated pool, a self-serve wine gallery, complimentary wi-fi, complimentary breakfast each morning, gardens, giant tortoises, an outdoor bar by the pool and an indoor seating area for dining or listening to the piano player. It’s also eco-friendly, pet-friendly and very LGBT-friendly.
When Merryn (the other woman on the tour) and I arrived, we went into the office to check in. There wasn’t anyone at the desk, but there was a sign that said “Press Button for Champagne.” So we pressed the button, and in a minute or so, a guy walked in with glasses of champagne to check us in. I think that’s how every hotel stay should start!
Our first night there, we got a guided tour of the Hemingway Rum Co., which makes an amazingly-tasty rum called Papa’s Pilar. There are dark and light versions, and if you like rum, look online for a DFW store that carries it. The fabulous people there gave us some history on Hemingway in Key West, showed us how they make the rum, and then treated us to some special Papa’s Pilar cocktails. This was my introduction to the deliciousness that is Papa’s Pilar mixed with ginger beer; dark rum and ginger beer is called a “Dark & Stormy;” the Papa’s Pilar version is called a “Key West Storm.”
From there, we went to Azur. I have to say, that was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. The owners and the chef shared our table, offering suggestions on what to try, and encouraging us to share with each other so that everybody got to taste everything.
Friday started with a snorkeling adventure aboard a Fury Water Adventures Key West vessel. I have issues with sea creatures with attitude, so I stayed on the boat and took photos. I still had a wonderful time, but I will admit the boat was a little crowded, and the crowd was very hetero, although certainly hostilely hetero.
For lunch, we headed over to the Atlantic side of the island to Salute! On The Beach. Again, the meal was fabulous. I cannot say enough good things about all the restaurants we visited. Each and every time, the good was amazing and the service was fantastic.
Friday evening, we got to take a sunset sail with BluQ, an LGBT-owned company. It was a smaller boat, and our group — six of us — were the only ones on the trip. Let me tell you, that’s the way to go! Sunset in Key West is a big deal. People line the seawall on the southwest tip of the island, at Mallory Square, to watch. There are street performers and vendors and food — again, the FOOD! By the way, you have to try Key Lime Pie on a stick, dipped in chocolate, like an ice cream — and the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. But we watched the sunset from the BluQ catamaran. Our captain was very knowledgeable and shared all kinds of facts and tidbits, which made the cruise even better.
We ended Friday night with a bar crawl of all the LGBT nightclubs.
Saturday we got to tour the Tennessee Williams Museum — he actually lived on Key West longer than Hemingway, and I never knew he was a painter as well as a writer — and the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. We had brunch at Spencer’s by the Sea followed by a tour of the Reach Resort, a Waldorf Astoria resort, in which Spencer’s is located. I didn’t do the Barefoot Billy’s jet ski tour around the island — back issues — but I heard it was a blast.
Saturday night, we had dinner at LaTeDa, a guest house with a restaurant and, upstairs, a show bar where after dinner we got to see Christopher Peterson perform his Eyecons Cabaret Show. If you ever have the chance, go see this show. Christopher is exceptionally talented and entertaining, and will hang around after to sign autographs and take photos with his fans. But get there early to get a good seat; it gets full fast.
Sunday after breakfast, we took an abbreviated bike tour of the island with Key Lime Bike Tours, and then a few of us took the ferry across to Sunset Key for another fabulous meal, this time at Latitudes Restaurant.
After , everybody else headed out to Ibis Bay for some night kayaking/paddleboarding, but again, my back said no. So I hung out at The Gardens, for a quiet and restful night.
The trip ended Monday morning with breakfast at Blue Heaven — I had a lobster and egg dish that nearly made me want to cancel my flight home — and then we all boarded the plane home.
I could go on and on about how much I loved Key West. But honestly, as I said, I am not a travel writer. So instead, I am going to include photos I took while I was there to hopefully better convey the feeling of the island. After all, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
— Tammye Nash
THE GARDENS HOTEL
SNORKELING WITH FURY WATER ADVENTURES
BLUQ SUNSET SAIL
HEMINGWAY RUM CO./PAPA’S PILAR DISTILLERY
KEY WEST BUTTERFLY AND NATURE CONSERVATORY
TENNESSEE WILLIAMS MUSEUm
SUNSET KEY/LATITUDES RESTAURANT
ODDS & ENDS AROUND KEY WEST