Seasons by the Sea: Close to Perfect in Key West

I love it so much I tell my friends not to come here
The urinal from the old Sloppy Joe’s has found a place in the Hemingway garden. Laura Donnelly

I thought driving to Islip at 3 a.m. on Friday in a snowstorm was white-knuckle harrowing. Little did I know that several hours later I would have just missed dodging a bullet at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

I’d been wanting to go to Key West for an extended time for years. Eight months ago I finally booked a tiny house in Old Town with a dipping pool. Key West, the Conch Republic, is “close to perfect, far from normal” as the ad campaign cleverly claims. It is one mile by four miles, easily traversed on foot, bicycle, golf cart, scooter, or Harley-Davidson without a helmet. 

Within this area there are between 350 and 700 restaurants, depending on whom you ask. Of those hundreds, at least 75 are excellent, offering everything from Cuban to Caribbean to crepes to just plain, old seafood like hogfish, fresh Florida pink shrimp, grouper, red snapper, and stone crab. Conch fritters, key lime pie, Cuban cigars, and rum drinks can be found on every corner. It is a relaxing, crazy, laissez-faire tropical island. It is also trashy, filled with day-trippers off the cruise ships, tattooed drunks, and way too many skanky T-shirt shops. 

I love it so much I tell my friends not to come here.

I have always enjoyed solo travel and dining alone. I’ve never been one of those ladies who bring a novel to keep them company in a restaurant or the modern equivalent: the cellphone appendage. Watching people, listening to chatter, and engaging the waiters and chef in conversation is my idea of a good time. Having worked in restaurants for many years, I speak the language and frequently get a tour of the kitchen or a good recipe.

When I booked my visit, I checked websites to see if any fun festivals were happening. Sadly, I will be leaving before the food and wine festival takes place, but I discovered that there will be a literary seminar next week with the likes of the poet laureate Billy Collins and Joyce Carol Oates. It is fully booked, but stay tuned, I may find a way to break in. Regardless, I’m pretty sure I will bump into Robert Caro or Joe Klein or Curtis Sittenfeld sipping a Papa Doble at one of Key West’s many fine bars. A girl can dream. . . .

When I arrived in Key West and went to the real estate office they told me the house wasn’t ready yet. “There’s a wine bar to the left, a rum bar on the right, come back in an hour” they suggested. I opted for the rum bar, and that’s when I learned from the blaring TVs that a shooting had taken place at the Fort Lauderdale airport literally two minutes after I left. I spent the next 20 minutes frantically texting my son and friends to let them know that I was okay and safely ensconced on a pleasant porch on Duval Street sipping a dark rum. I was feeling very lucky indeed, and heartbroken for the victims, and then I discovered that the fine folks of the Transportation Security Administration had broken my computer. Day One was spent getting a new computer.

On the first night, I dined at a place called Blackfin. I had fried hogfish in a mild curry sauce with rice and string beans. Hogfish is delicious! It’s a mild fish that tastes like a cross between flounder and striped bass.

I have only been here three days and the grocery store is half a mile away, so every day I buy as much as I can carry home. My mode of transpo is known as the “10-toe turbo” in Jamaican patois. (Note to self: Flip-flops are not good for walking many miles a day.) On each trip I stock up on more supplies: coffee, lemons, limes, garlic, lettuce, bread, eggs, butter, just enough for simple meals at home. 

In the morning I make a pilgrimage to a bakery that has been in Key West since the 1970s, called Croissants de France. The chef is from Brittany and makes the most glorious buttery, crunchy, sugary, flaky version of kouign- amann I have ever had. It is as good as I remember, but the croissants look large and pale and sad and they are filled with coconut cream and other tropical nonsense, so I wouldn’t recommend those.

For lunch, in a torrential downpour, I went to Nine One Five for one of the best meals I’ve had so far: Brussels sprouts with preserved lemon, Szechuan tofu with eggplant, and fish tacos made with grouper. I spent a few hours chatting with Justin, the waiter from Lithuania, and Zach Moses, the chef who came to Key West from Blue Hill and Flex Mussels in New York City. He shared his recipe for spiny lobster ravioli filling, and they gave me a garbage bag/poncho for the walk home. 

I confess that I was so tired and lazy that night that I bought a Five Guys burger with fries and ate it on my patio. The fries were excellent. I think they put Old Bay seasoning on them.

On Sunday morning (59 degrees with 25-mile-per-hour winds) I went bright and early to Blue Heaven for shrimp and grits and banana bread and a slice of its famous Key lime pie. The shrimp and grits were superb — buttery with scallions and a sprinkle of shredded white cheddar cheese. After that it was a tour through the Hemingway house, which is always fun, but the tour guide was a simpleton. He suggested we tell all of our friends that the house is available for weddings in the garden. He pointed to a structure and said, “Here is our outdoor chapel,” but it was pretty obviously a chuppah for that day’s ceremony. Whatever. There are 53 six-toed cats in residence, all descendants of the original cats belonging to Ernest himself.

For lunch I waddled to Santiago’s Bodega in Bahama Village, another place that was highly recommended. It’s okay. I had more shrimp, this time grilled with chorizo and bathed in garlic sauce. For dinner I had a rum drink with Jimmy Fallon and the Golden Globes.

I haven’t been to the beach yet, haven’t snorkeled or grilled at home, and haven’t been on a glass-bottomed boat, but I will be doing all these and more. Tomorrow I meet friends of friends, and for the rest of my stay, I have occasional houseguests. There is a farmer’s market on Thursday, and I think I found a good source for fresh fish to cook at home. I might get a tan and do some “day drinking.” Nine One Five will be my hangout. I plan to stalk the famous writers arriving in a few days and attempt to gain access to the literary seminar.

In the meantime, I will swat away the palmetto bugs, a.k.a. cockroaches, a.k.a. Bombay canaries, that have found their way into my conch house, try to sleep through the rooster-crowing that begins outside my window at 2:30 a.m., find as much good food as possible, make new friends, and count my blessings that my timing was lucky in Fort Lauderdale. 

Key West, you are indeed close to perfect and far from normal.

Grilled shrimp on a skewer with sliced chorizo and garlic sauce is served at Santiago’s Bodega in Key West. Laura Donnelly Photos
Key lime pie