I have many favourite places for a great party weekend but the one that tops the list is a small island just in the Caribbean at the end of a long set of causeways called Key West. Almost not a part of the United States, the Conch Republic is a complete mindset away from the normal day to day living and many find that once there they just have to stay.
One thing I have said many times about great places is that they usually require a bit of an effort to get to. Key West is no exception, the drive down from Miami usually takes about four hours or more by car depending on the traffic, Greyhound have a frequent service out of Miami and that takes a little longer. There are direct lights in from many US cities however the flight from Miami is by far the most fun, the journey takes only thirty minutes and takes you over the keys for some spectacular views.
Passengers are shuffled around to balance the load and the flight attendants manage to get a quick round of drinks to all on board just before touchdown at the still quaint Key West airport.
Because of its location as a destination for many conventions and festivals, accommodation on the island can quite often be pretty full. It pays to plan ahead a little to secure the best options for somewhere to stay, especially around fantasy fest time. There is a great youth hostel at the South Point with an adjoining motel; reservations should be made ahead in season. For others who want a little more luxury there are several standard motels such as the Best Western chain that have locations near the action and more than a few independent operators that are worth trying out. Bearing in mind the somewhat alternative nature of the island it may be best to check on the clientele that frequent your chosen spot to make sure that there are no surprises in store!
The island is not as small as it seems and has enough room for a military airport and a state park however for most tourists all the major areas are very walkable and for times when the day’s exertions have taken their toll pedicabs and regular taxis are in abundance. Most of the action centres on Duval Street and the roads that branch off of it with the addition of Mallory Dock for the sunset celebrations, some of the best bars in the world have staked their claim here.
Before I get into the nightlife section, I know that’s what you really want to know about, I should mention the other activities that are available, and I have even done some of them! For partying scuba divers Key West is a dream destination, the reefs are warm and shallow and most of the dive boats set off after midday. Novices can get their training in the pool prior to diving and it is an excellent location to learn to dive. Boats and planes take visitors out to the islands of the Dry Tortugas for day trip sand sailing boats ply their trade for champagne sunset cruises off the coast. A great cultural spot is the revered home of Ernest Hemmingway complete with memorabilia and cats galore, this is a great spot but pick your time carefully to avoid the masses. There are few really good beaches on the island however sun worshippers can make use of several of the hotel pools for a moderate charge or a drink or two.
Okay back to business; let us start with sunset as everybody else does. Nothing is more iconic than the setting of the sun off of Mallory Dock, the cruise liners dock here and the antics of the street entertainers draw crowds in their thousands to get the ball rolling for the evening and cheer the setting of the sun. Get started with a frozen drink and some conch fritters and you will feel at home in no time. It’s time for food and also the start of some happy hours, a great place for seafood lovers is the Half Shell restaurant not too far from Sunset and for the more adventurous Bo’s fish shack is a real find, just ask a cabbie. If a sit down meal on Duval street is more your cup of tea you can do no wrong by choosing to eat at Caroline’s just opposite the Hard Rock Cafe, their blackened Cajun chicken is awesome and would feed an army.
Moving on to the real party I have to say Sloppy Joes is not only an institution but is fair price wise considering its headline billing. Make your friends back home jealous by waving to them on the stage webcam in the bar, dance to the great live music and meet new people from all over. For a more vocal experience pop into Irish Kevin’s bar a few doors along. The acts here are hilarious and that one beer can turn into several. A couple of other great bars are Captain Tony’s Saloon and the Hogs Breath; both bars seem to heave all night long with the usual live music accompaniment. A novel bar, the Bulls Head attempts to attract customers of every taste. The ground floor pub is raucous saloon style, the first floor is hustler’s heaven with its pool tables and the notorious Garden of Eden roof bar is a clothing optional outdoor patio with a DJ that goes on into the early hours attracting exhibitionists and relaxed nudists in variable numbers depending upon the weather.
Key West’s most spectacular event is fantast fest, body painted and costume adorned party people roam the streets in a festival that is just so Key West, leave your inhibitions on the mainland and dance the night away.
You are never far away from a good time in Key West, the locals are good natured and the visitors come with one aim in mind at that is to have fun no matter what the time of day and, in the words of Jimmy Buffet, its 5 o’clock somewhere.