Journeys: Relaxing in Cayo Hueso

Paradise, sunset celebrations, and amazing food await in Key West, FL

Photo credit Mike Berger

There’s a famous quote—some say quipped by singer/songwriter Dolly Parton—that says, “Paradise is a state of mind.” With all due respect, I must beg to differ. Paradise is Key West, Florida.

Geographically closer to the island nation of Cuba than it is to the continental U.S., Key West is a 7-square-mile spit of land at the very end of U.S. Highway 1. Surrounded by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the island is as far south as you can go and still be in the United States. With its pastel painted cottages, palm trees, Caribbean food, and eclectic blend of cultures from all around the world, Key West is more akin to a tropical island than it is to Florida. And it may be as close to paradise as you can find here on earth.

I must admit that I’m prejudice; I used to live there. My wife and I honeymooned in Key West twenty years ago, and we fell in love with the island so much that we upped stakes and moved there. And while we only officially called Key West our home for a little over a year, it remains to me the most magical, singularly unique destination.

Just this month my wife and I returned to Cayo Hueso (as Key West is also called) for a week to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and we were deeply reminded of why we love the little island so much. Getting there is easy—with a layover in Atlanta, Key West is only about 4-1/2 hours by jet, and from the minute you step out of the aircraft and onto the tarmac of the island’s tiny “international” airport, you feel as if you’ve entered a different world.

We’re not the only ones who fell in love with Key West. Famed naturalist John James Audubon, author Ernest Hemmingway, and President Harry Truman all had homes there at one point, and today they’re open to the public for tours (although the Audubon House is actually a later residence built in 1849 atop where Audubon’s cottage once sat. Still, it’s breathtakingly beautiful).

One of the most iconic things to do on the island is to ride the Conch Train and take in the island’s many sights. Sure, it’s a little kitchy, but there’s no better way to quickly get a Key West history lesson. Every time someone visited us when we lived there, we made sure to take them on the train, and even on this return visit we hopped aboard and regaled in the island’s unique and often odd history.

Key West (and the Florida Keys in general) is also home to the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States, and it’s a haven for snorkelers, scuba divers, and water lovers alike. Throw in a few shipwrecks deliberately sunk to form artificial reefs, and you have the perfect habitat for sea turtles, sharks, barracuda, octopuses, and more beautiful fish in every color of the rainbow than you can imagine in one place.

And let’s not forget about the food scene! Almost every restaurant proudly offers seafood dishes whose ingredients were swimming in the local waters just hours before. Conch fritters—small balls of conch snail meat fried in batter with various seasonings—are a must-have delicacy, and Key West Pinks and Royal Reds (both local varieties of shrimp) can’t be missed. Each restaurant has its own unique way to prepare these little guys, and each is uniquely worth it. Throw in a cold Kalik Bahamian beer, a rum runner, or a mojito, and you have the perfect recipe for a perfect day.

So how to you top off your day in paradise? By celebrating the sunset, of course! Each and every evening, tourists and locals alike gather at Mallory Square to watch the sun set into the western horizon. Artists, food trucks, street performers, and assorted colorful characters all partake in this event. Want to see someone juggle fire or swallow swords? You’ll see it there. Care to browse the creations of local jewelry makers? Plenty of opportunity. Need more conch fritters or another mojito? Yep, you’ll find those as well.

With drink in hand, everyone eventually lines the wharf to catch the last elusive glint of sunlight at the far water’s edge, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch sight of the rare green flash, when a bright spot of green light shoots into the sky as the sun vanishes. And once the sun does finally sink, everyone applauds Mother Nature’s amazing show.

The simple fact is Key West is as close to tropical paradise as you can get without leaving the country. And it’s a state of mind, too. It’s a place where you can go to let loose of the daily grind, to embrace a slower pace of life, and to celebrate the beauty, uniqueness, and diversity of the world around us. It is a place like no other, one that must be experienced to fully understand.

I’m not ashamed to say that my wife and I both shed a few tears when we boarded our plane to head back to Minnesota. It’s hard to say goodbye, but it’s comforting to know that we’ll be back. After all, no one stay away from paradise forever.