A Gearhead’s Euro Dream Come True (Part One)

I always thought that weekend jaunts to Europe were reserved for nitro-fueled rock stars, self-destructive offspring of industrial billionaires, and diamond merchants (like this guy).

Sadly, I don’t find myself falling into any of those categories these days.

Yet here we are, shuffling through security at Dulles International on a muggy July afternoon, bound for Western Germany’s Rhineland and a flat-out, 4-day automotive-nirvana, including Formula 1 at the Nurburgring, hot laps (in a rental car) on the legendary Nordschleife, and high-speed autobahn barnstorming.

On the excursion is my 17 year old son Derek, a lifelong racing fan who just graduated high school and is headed to study engineering at Lehigh University in the Fall. My father is aboard as well, himself a former sports car racer, and the one who’s responsible for implanting the motorsports bug in yours truly, pretty much at birth.

Three generations of speed freaks, jetting off to the birthplace of internal combustion. Um, Hell yeah.

The flight is an overnighter, and since it’s easier to teach trees to sing than it is to sleep in coach, we watch in-flight movies instead, drink bad airline coffee and stare at the black Atlantic below.

FRIDAY

9:00 am 

We land in Frankfurt, and blow thru customs like the wind. Hit our first (and very rare) batch of  Teutonic attitude at the Avis counter, when their customer service rep completely ignores us, chatting nonchalantly with a co-worker, then argues about the validity of the reservation confirmation I have in my hand. Grampa vehemently opposes the tiny Citroen subcompact they’re thrusting upon us, and we end up in an Audi A4 diesel wagon with the S-Line trim package that’s slick, sturdy, and comfy, yet has roughly the same acceleration rate as an insurance seminar ($151.00 US per day, plus tax. Note: tiny Euro hatch was over $100 per day on its own).

Comfy and stylish, yet slower than an MVA line.

The Audi has built-in navi, but it’s nearly impossible to figure out, and even more difficult to comprehend once we do. Luckily I’d also brought along my Tom Tom, and spent the $30 to download Germany before we left. This is a gift from the Gods. While Tom works marginally at best in the States, here in Deustchland it’s a native tour guide, with knowledge of every alley, speed limit, and shortcut. Beauty.

10:14am

We head west, out of the city into a light gray morning mist on the A66 autobahn, and I fall in love with Germany’s focused, purposeful, no-bullshit driving style immediately. No cell phoners, no left lane blockers, zero meatheads.

A few miles into the countryside, we hit our first free-speed zone. I coax the Audi up to 180 kph (about 110 miles an hour), and we move freely with the traffic, faster than the trucks and sub-compacts on our right, yet still watching 4-door luxo sedans and sports cars powering by on our left at regular intervals. The Audi’s 0-60 time may be measured in minutes, but once at speed it feels very sure-footed and capable, with no drama.  Outside, lush green countryside flashes by that looks a whole lot like Pennsylvania.

No that’s not the PA Turnpike, it’s the Autobahn at 180 kph.

11:48am

We reach the tiny hamlet of Nurburg, not far from the Belgian border in the Eifel Mountains. It’s a classic German village surrounded by Hansel and Gretel-bait pine forests, with the obligatory castle at the top of the nearest hill, and home to one of the planet’s premier motorsports complexes. Nurburg is absolutely oozing with racing goodness, from the BMW Motorsports training facility in the center of town, to flags and engine sounds and classic racing signage everywhere. Their official year-round population is 159, yet on Sunday’s F1 race day Nurburg will swell to more than 400,000, arriving from all corners of the globe.

Nurburg town center, before I swatted the guy.

They’ve been racing here for nearly eight decades, first on the famed Nordschleife (North Loop), a notoriously difficult, 170+ turn, 12.9 mile course that blasts wildly through the countryside, past farms, forests, fields, and villages. Nordschliefe was nicknamed the “Green Hell” by former world champion Jackie Stewart, and was finally deemed too dangerous and closed to Grand Prix racing after Niki Lauda’s fiery crash in 1976. A few years later, a new 3.2 mile Nurburging circuit was constructed on an adjacent stretch of land, and F1 racing resumed.

These days, the historic long course still sees its share of sports car racing, and has also become THE proving ground for automobile manufacturers the world over, from Ford and Chevrolet, to Porsche, Cadillac, Nissan, and a host of others. You can even take your own street car out and run it at speed, merely by signing up and paying per lap (more on that later).

It’s still misting and cloudy, temp in the low 60s. Yet, in true, travel-mensa fashion, I’m in t-shirt, shorts, and flops. It was 97 degrees when we left DC, but somehow it didn’t occur to me that where we were going was somewhat more north (further north than Montreal, actually). Duh. I’m wondering how many Europeans are playing “Spot the American Idiot” right now.

We enter the supremely shiny, high-tech complex, and find dry seats under an overhang at the end of the front straight. The F1s are just coming out for practice, and it’s our first chance to see the fastest road-racing cars on the planet driven by the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, and a bunch of other mega-celeb athletes that most Americans have never heard of. The sight is amazing, but the sound is even better: a 12,000 rpm wailing whoop that’s both pulverizing and magnificent,  and giving me rampant goosebumps. It takes me a few minutes to regain the ability to form coherent words.

1:15pm

Lunchtime. We hit up one of approximately 130,000 food stands for some bratwursts mit (with) mustard and pommes frites (french fries) mit ketchup. Most of the folks around us are getting THEIR pommes frites mit mayo, Pulp Fiction-style. And instead of using our fingers for the fries, they give us this nifty little plastic fork thing for stabbing. Brats are pretty damned good. Fries are meh. Euro ketchup doesn’t help. Still, you gotta love a country where beer is cheaper than Coca Cola, especially at a sporting event. Since I’m driving, I grab free bottled water from a sponsor display (Well, I think they’re free!)

Instead of paying with cash, we’re forced to use a ‘Ring Card’, which is handed to us while standing in line by a semi-hot German blonde. There’s a bit of a communication barrier, but soon I pick up that it’s basically like a debit card that we use cash or credit card to add points to, in order to buy stuff. She does the whole transaction electronically from a cool little box-thingy in her hand–another example of German efficiency.

3:11pm

Having a blast, but the temp is dropping, and we’re starting to turn blue. So we head back to the car to go track down our hotel. While walking along the main street in town, I’m using my hands to describe something and accidentally pop a guy behind me in the head like a spastic oaf. Now, back in Daytona or Talledega, we’d probably have been instantly throwing elbows, even WITH my quick apology. But in Germany, he simply shrugs it off with a smile, and we shake hands and move along, thus avoiding an international incident.

4:30pm

En route to hotel. Mrs. Bunny spent several weeks making our travel arrangements for us, and as usual, they’re stellar. Same with Tom Tom’s guidance.

We pop off the highway and enter an absolutely mind-blowing stretch of narrow, winding, two-lane Euro roadway. We’re dropping down the mountain to the ancient town of Boppard, and the asphalt, dips, weaves and curls before us, switchback turns and S-curves aplenty. I’m pushing the Audi pretty well,  the all-wheel-drive and 6-speed manual gearbox assisting are great allies (fact: many cars in Germany are still stick shift, mainly because they know how to drive), and we’re all “ooh”ing and “wow”ing and grinning like mental patients. The road has a beautiful, artful appearance, from the brick underpass for the train tracks, to the expansive view of the Rhine River Valley down there that’s at times devoid of guardrails.

The road down the mountain to Boppard was tight and narrow, with great corners. What a rush!

A few minutes later, we touch bottom and enter Boppard. It’s so perfect, it’s almost stereotypical. I’m convinced that Pinocchio has a summer cottage here.

We slip through a maze of tiny streets and even tinier alleys, hang a left, and find ourselves on the Rhine Allee, a line of beautiful old inns, hotels, and biergartens to our left, the Rhine’s black water and strong current there on the right. The sun is finally shining, and there’s people everywhere.

(photo courtesy of Rheinhotel Bellevue)

We find the Hotel Bellevue Rheinhotel, ($174.00 per night US, with breakfast buffet) an elegant grand old lady built in 1887, and now strangely part of the Best Western chain.  They’re expecting us, and before we can even say “David Hasselhoff” we’re checked in and warmly whisked off to a clean, modern 3rd floor semi-suite with three beds, full private bath (not a given over here), massive TV, wet bar, and river-view balcony.

Grampa and I go back out to move the car (no hotel parking, all street. Hate that, but also expected it). Just like most US metropolitan areas these days, the meters are history and we need to instead buy a time ticket to stick in the windshield.

Simple, right? Uh….no.

Oh, the machine is easy enough to locate. But in a country that has so far had English printed as a second language everywhere we look, and here in a popular tourist town, the parking machine is an alien contraption, completely non-intuitive, and with instructions only in German. AND it doesn’t take credit cards. First passerby we flag down is French (just our luck). Pierre tries using hand gestures to explain the machine, then gets annoyed and stomps off when we don’t understand. Next passerby is a woman who simply continues to pass us by. Finally, an older gent sees us struggling, hustles over, and mercifully explains what is a ridiculously complicated process. When I tell him thanks, he laughs heartily and strides off, presumably in search of more good deeds to perform.

The view of the Rhine Allee from our hotel’s front steps.

5:20pm

Checked in, unpacked, showered, dressed, quick call to Mrs. Bunny to let her know we made it… now I have but one thing on my mind: beer.

I’m talking REAL German beer, not the hack-kneed factory seconds they import to the States. See, with the country’s strict beer purity law, the grog you’re served is ultra-fresh and 100% preservative-free, and almost always from a brewery that’s not more than 10-15 kilometers from where you’re ordering it.

We head down to the ornate, wood-paneled lobby bar (it’s empty), and take a seat at the rail. Our bartender is Marco; he’s Italian, but his English is pretty good, and he’s an F1 fan. We ask for his recommendation, and Marco brings us cold Bitburger pilsners from the nearby town of–you guessed it–Bitburg.

Local beer is good beer.

Derek is pleasantly astounded to be legally served a cold draft from a smiling bartender who’s not asking to see ID, (legal drinking age for beer is 16) but it doesn’t stop him from digging in like a sauce king.  It’s soooo good; well-balanced, light, and full of flavor. One soon becomes three.

We’re chatting with Marco about the weekend’s upcoming race, and then he asks what part of England we’re from. We’re stunned at first, but then it makes sense. Boppard sees more than its fair share of British tourists on a regular basis, and since English isn’t his native language, Marco can no more hear the difference between the England and USA accents than the average American can discern Barcelona Spanish from Argentinian Spanish.

Once Marco learns we’re from the US, he starts peppering us with “what’s it like over there?” questions. Grampa and I are giving him the 411 as Derek signals for another beer.

6:35pm

It’s been a loooooong day,  one that actually started 30 hours and more than 3,000 miles ago. We’re hungry, but have neither the remaining energy nor the inclination to hit the streets in search of a restaurant, so we lazily grab a table on the front deck of our hotel, and dine from their menu.

My view from our table, looking across the Rhine.

The Rhine stretches before us across the one way street, with small mountains behind it that are adorned with grapevine terraces on the steep slopes, a reminder that this is Reisling country. There’s some interesting offerings on the menu (just what in the hell IS Weiner Art anyway? Sounds like something by Mapplethorpe). We order schnitzels and soup, and dig in. Derek gets lost en route to the bathroom, due to beers, exhaustion, or both.

Apparently artist Robert Mapplethorpe was guest chef that night.

As we’re waiting on our food, a colorful line of classic sports cars is forming down the street in front of us. MGs, Triumphs, Morgans, Austin Healeys, old Porsches, Renaults, even a Mustang, all with competition numbers on their sides. We head over for a closer look, and find out that they’re in the Berlin to Rome Classic Road Rally, and Boppard is an overnight checkpoint. Nice.

After dinner, exhaustion hits us like a runaway refrigerator truck. I actually doze off while still sitting at our table.

What a day. And tomorrow will be even better.

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GB Quickie: our new favorite travel deal website

Yeah, there’s more travel websites vying for our attention these days than there are…um…uh….something else that is actually quite abundantly prolific.

Here at Travel Bunny Worldwide, we’ve logged more than a few hours with travel sites on our laptops. We’ve Orbitzed, we’ve Travelocitited, Priced AND Lined, VRBO’d, and even Expedia-ed once, and the results have been meh.

But the one site that’s been consistently…consistent for our team has been Kayak.com. They pull info from other sites, and gather it all up, nice and neat.

Here’s their “deals” page. If you’re looking for a weekend pass, or still haven’t planned that summer vacation, this could help.

CLICK ME FOR TRAVEL DEALS

Oh, and to that guy there in the 3rd row who’s bitching up a storm about this post: No, genius. This isn’t a paid advertisement. It’s just us sharing our opinion with you good people, which seems to be what our readers like to read. So, get a grip, huh? Go get fired up about Obama’s new shoes, or something.

COMING UP: Photographer Kathy Schenkel  just returned from a local-layback trip to Cozumel, Mexico, and came back deeply tanned and looking at tequila as the anti-christ. Look for her photo collection, coming soon. 

Key West: Bunnies Amongst the Chickens

Route 1 ends, and the fun begins.

When I was a kid in SoCo (that’s Southern Connecticut to you and me, Russ), we lived not too far from this little amusement park in Rye Beach, NY known as Playland.

By today’s mega-park standards, it wasn’t much–kinda like Mini Me to Cedar Point’s Brad Pitt. But when the magic words “Wanna go to Playland?” were heard in our house, it was like Christmas, my birthday, and the last day of school all rolled into one, and I’d go completely outta my mind in anticipation.

Flash forward to adulthood. I get the same rush every time we head down to a tiny chunk of palm-treed rock at the bottom of the contiguous US that’s been a stomping ground for centuries for everyone from pirates to Monopoly Men industrial icons to US presidents.

Key West.

If you’ve never been, you should understand right up front that KW is not for everyone. Here’s a quick quiz to see if it’s what you’re looking for:

  1. Are you wound tighter than a Baptist baseball and have no desire to un-tighten?

  2. Is your regular bedtime no later than 10pm?

  3. Is Jeff Foxworthy your idea of a wild, cutting-edge entertainer?

If you answered YES to one or more of these questions, then…um…yeah, there are other vacation destinations in the Sunshine State that would almost certainly suit you better (lovely Amelia Island comes readily to mind).

But for those looking for something a little different, left-of-center, off the proverbial path, where the unexpected is an everyday norm, your Playland awaits.

So, what are we waiting for? Let’s roll…

HOW WE LIKE TO GET THERE

Arriving at Key West Airport

Not a plethora of direct flights into Key West Airport, but even with a connection along the way it’s worth it. The lower Keys already feel 3rd World anyway, and this tiny airport definitely fits the bill. You walk off the plane onto the hot, sticky tarmac itself, and the message on the side of the terminal reads “Welcome to the Conch Republic”, a nod to their tongue-in-cheek cessation back in 1982.

The whole place is about the size of a Delaware K Mart.

Expect to pay about $25 for the 15 minute cab ride to the downtown/Duval St area. Expensive, but better than renting a car, as parking can really suck in the downtown area.

If you have a little more time, consider flying into Miami or Ft Lauderdale, renting something cool, and following the Florida Turnpike down to Overseas Highway, one of the all-time great scenic drives. On the downside, it’s mostly one lane in each direction, and dang easy to get trapped behind a long line of Winnebagos and trailered fishing boats. But the infinite blue panoramic view, especially from Seven Mile Bridge, is magically delicious.

WHERE WE LIKE TO STAY

There’s several fine hotels all over the island, but we honestly prefer Key West’s stellar B&Bs. Normally, I’m SO not a B&B guy, as I don’t understand the point of doilies, but KW-style can be a universe away from the B&B norm. 

If you can’t relax here, you need Valium.

Our favorite is the Mermaid & the Alligator (729 Truman Avenue). It’s not exactly cheap (around $300 a night in season), but the place is a classic Key West Victorian, circa 1904, with dark, oiled wood, high ceilings, wrap around balconies, warm breeze flow-thru, each room an autonomous theme (with private bath–bonus!). We chose the Audubon Room, with louvered patio doors that open out to the grotto, complete with exotic plants, plunge pool. and the sexy, original statue that inspired the inn’s name. The sun-dried tomato frittata and fresh-baked muffins we had for breakfast were delicious day-starters, for sure. And 4pm is afternoon wine time, complimentary for guests.

Mermaid & the Alligator is close enough to the action that you can walk to the bars and restaurants, yet you’re far enough away that the Last Call diehards aren’t peeing outside your window and singing slurred Buffett tunes at 4am.

One tiny little disclosure: M&A sits across the street from a Catholic church that kicks in the bell chimes about 7:30 am daily, so be aware if you’re a light (or late) sleeper.

Mrs. Bunny says: We prefer to be away from the bars for where we stay, sexy and fun are just a bunny skip away!

HOW WE LIKE TO GET AROUND

Like I said, car parking can be an expensive and time-sucking pain in the coconuts on and around Duval St. So instead, we rent scooters, which you can park just about anywhere, for free (just remember where you’ve parked, as they’re everywhere down there, and they all look the same! We’ve seen several hungover scooter-hunters wandering the streets the morning after).

Some rental companies will deliver them right to your door, and pick them up again when you’re done, at no extra charge. And they like to haggle too. I ended up getting 2 scooters for 3 days for $50 total, delivered, after a little wrangling. Talk to the front desk or concierge for a recommendation.

Mr. Bunny, riding his chopper through Old Town.

Scooters are super-easy to ride. Even Mrs. Bunny went from “yikes!” to “yahoo!” in about an hour. They’re automatic (so no gear shifting), they’re key start, and they have lockable storage under the seat. Top speed is roughly 40mph, but it takes about four days to hit it.

Mrs. Bunny says: Holy crap! I have never ridden a motorized bike, and omg it was scary at first. But after running around on some quiet side streets, I quickly got the hang of it. Mrs. Bunny advises to not drink and scooter. If going out for the evening, please walk. It’s a softer landing.

Other free-parking vehicle options: bicycles, electric golf cart-looking things.

FOOD

Key West is a foodie playground, and as always, we go local and avoid the chains. As you can probably guess, there’s plenty of fresh local fish like grouper, tuna, mahi mahi, ballyhoo, conch, shrimp, stone crabs (beware MD Steamed Blue Crab lovers: Stones are boiled and served chilled, no spice, w/mustard sauce for dipping. They’ve got a strange aftertaste that neither of us cared for), plus great steaks, French, Cuban, Spanish, Italian, even good bar food. Here’s a sampling of our favorites:

1. B.O.’s Fish Wagon (801 Caroline St)

Grilled Grouper sandwiches, fresh-cut fries, ice-cold beer….

Not gonna lie to ya; B.O’s is more of an open air shack than a restaurant, but that’s part of the charm. Fresh grouper and mahi mahi sandwiches (grilled or fried), fresh-cut fries, cold beers, and live blues and jazz music make the Shack a fantastic option for lunch or between pub snack. Figger about $10-$15 to fill your tank.

Mrs. Bunny says: Great place for a hangover, ’nuff said!

2. El Sibonay (900 Catherine Ave)

El Sibonay is on over on the quiet side of the island, and is, hands-down, the best Cuban food we’ve ever experienced. Even my Havana-born father was raving about their marinated pork, fried plantains, and cafe con leche.

This place ain’t first-date fancy. It’s lit up like a cafeteria, you’ll almost certainly have to wait (outside) for a table, and they don’t even bother taking your name (you get a number when you get there). But not only is it fantastic food, the prices are unbelievable (that’s GOOD unbelievable!).

Mrs. Bunny says: Dinner was two orders of marinated pork with sides, black bean soup, a pitcher of homemade sangria, and two flans for dessert = $42 WITH TIP! Furthermore, we could have shared an entree as the portions were HUGE! Still have cravings for their food. Awesome.

A&B Lobster House (700 Front St)

Touristy, yet amazing, A&B is a Key West institution. This is a world class lobster house, with an expansive view of the harbor. The top floor is fancy-schmancy gourmet, and expensive (about $75 a head for dinner + drinks), with both fresh Maine and local spiny lobster on the menu.

Downstairs, Alonzo’s is more lax, and offered a Happy Hour (even on Saturday) that featured cheap drinks and 2-for-1 seafood apps.

(“Only in Key West” side note: while deciding what we wanted to eat at Alonzo’s after several hours of Duval Crawling, I felt something poking me in the back. I turned, and this fairly hammered little woman at the next table says “ya gotta try thish here smoked bluefishhhh. F*cking amazing!” and then proceeds to slide the plate onto our table. So we dug in. The smoked fish was damn good, and her much-saner boyfriend was a cab owner who ended up taking us back to the airport a few days later for only $12.)

AVOID: Mangia Mangia (900 Southard St)    

The only thing worse than their mediocre pasta dishes is their painstaking attention to rude and disinterested service. Picture Olive Garden with far less flavor and staffed by NYC bus drivers.

Mrs. Bunny says: While I will admit to being a bit ‘under the weather’ for this dining experience, I did wake up the next day remembering a certain level of rudeness permeating my buzz!! No fun!

DRINKS & NIGHTLIFE

Now we’re getting to the heartbeat of Key West. They make alcohol an art form down there, with diversity, creativity, and open-arms attitude. Sure, you don’t HAVE to drink while you’re there, but that’d be like going to church and avoiding all the religion parts.

They’re pretty lax about drinking down there, provided that you’re not acting like a raging asshole. For example, there’s this little bar on the Duval St sidewalk that’s basically like a newsstand. No idea what it’s called, but you can’t miss it. You can grab a beer or cocktail there, and just head on down the street with it, no worries. And if you’re in one bar, and suddenly decide to roll to the next place, you just do it, drink in hand. Just be sure to ask for a to-go cup.

And look: KW has more bars than Alaska has ice cubes. It’s impossible to hit them all, unless you live there, and you’re independently wealthy and constantly thirsty. We’ve only scratched the surface ourselves.

Irish Kevin’s (211 Duval St)

Mrs. Bunny enjoys a Harp while Jeff Harris performs.

I know it says “nightlife” at the top of this section, but Irish Kevin’s also offers…uh…MORNINGlife, as beers and live acoustic music can start as early as 10am every day of the week during season. Kevin’s is 100% touristy, but that’s cool because it’s a total trip. You may be coaxed by the onstage performer to kiss your significant other when you walk in (cheers will ensue), you may be part of the “running of bulls” where a group of bearded patrons with viking helmets chases a female customer down the street, and you might be heckled when you leave for not sticking around.

Mrs. Bunny says: As my friends/family will confirm. Irish Kevin’s is always the first place I lose the ability to spell while texting about the great time I’m having. 

Sloppy Joe’s (201 Duval St)

Basically right next door to Irish Kevin’s, Sloppy’s may be the best-known watering hole on the planet, made famous by Papa Ernest Hemingway (albeit at their original location, about a block and a half away). Sloppy’s sits on a corner, with open entry all the way around that brings in the breeze, street sounds, and thirsties. Like Kevin’s, it’s always a party.

You gotta do Sloppy’s at least once. Grab a drink, call your friends, and make them jealous as hell as you wave to them at the webcam out on their Duval side. And if you get lucky, maybe you’ll catch the great Pat Dailey performing on Sloppy’s stage. Pat is another KW institution, in his mid-60s, and still a wildman.

Bull & Whistle (224 Duval St) 

Yeah, the Bull is a solid go-to, with live rock bands day and night in season, and there’s decent pool tables up on their second floor. But what REALLY makes this place like no other is what’s on their THIRD floor rooftop.

It’s the Garden Of Eden, clothing optional bar.

That tropical area on the roof? That’s the Garden of Eden, a clothing-optional bar.

You just don’t see these kinds of things in places like Davenport, Iowa, do ya. Like Sloppy’s, it’s worth checking out at least once. Yes, you will probably see naked people (unless it’s c-c-c-COLD out!), no, you don’t have to disrobe if you don’t want to. No, it’s not an orgy (but we HAVE witnessed some interesting dance floor escapades!). Yes, it’s one hell of a good time.

Mrs. Bunny says: Ladies, it’s not as bad as you think. Sure, there’s the occasional fat, bald, naked guy in view. But for the most part it’s very laid-back and relaxed, with less rampant testosterone than you might think. 

Honorable Mentions:

1. La Te Da (1125 Duval St)                                                                                                    

Cool little outdoor bar with live jazz music + cabaret  that has both hetero and homosexual clientele. Great option if you want something a bit more upscale and less turbocharged than down on the louder end of Duval. Last time we were there, this cool couple we met from Pittsburgh was having so much fun on the dance floor, they fell down the stairs and right out the front door, with a potted plant landing on top of them for a great cartoon ending! No injuries, so it was funny.

2. Schooner’s Wharf (202 William St)                                                                           

Whenever I hear the term “Salty Dog”, I immediately think of Schooner’s. Old-school Key West joint, over on the waterfront. Apparently this was Jimmy Buffett’s hangout back in the early 70s, when he was just another unknown singer/songwriter.

OTHER COOL THINGS

So, besides drinking, eating, and looking at naked people, KW does have some other options for your attention.

1. Ernest Hemingway House (907 Whitehead St)                                               

Hemingway’s Key West house is right off the chain.

Sure, as I writer I geeked out when I got to check out Papa’s Key West home, but it’s a good time for most adults (kids would likely be bored, but why are you bringing kids to Key West in the first place?). The house is magnificent, with tons of photos and memorabilia, a swimming pool that cost several times more than the average annual household income when it was built, the latest generation of Hemingway’s family of six-toed cats running around, and his writing loft in the outbuilding, complete with the original typewriter.

2. Mallory Square (1 Whitehead St)          

Come for the world-class sunsets, stay for the world-class street performers. The Square gets packed as the day goes on, so arrive early for a prime spot along the rail, grab a snack, and wait for Mother Nature to break out the paint brush.

Juggling unicyclists, fire eaters, and more do their thing in Mallory Square.

3. Butterfly Conservatory (1316 Duval St)    

Exactly what you think it is, you’re surrounded by hundreds of technicolor moths as you tour the conservatory. Guys, yeah, I know, it sounds about as exciting as shopping for curtains, but it honestly was pretty cool.

4.  Fort Zachary Taylor State Park  (601 Howard England Way)

Key West’s most popular beach, but that’s not saying much. The sand part is just fine, lush and tropical, with the famous “mileage” sign, and a decent snack bar. But like most beaches in the keys, there’s a ton of rock and coral under the water’s surface. Wear water shoes, flip flops, something. Or just chill under the palm trees, because the view is unparalleled.

Zach Taylor’s mileage signpost is a photo op fave.

4. Southernmost Marker (201 Front St)

Another iconic photo op, this buoy typically has a line of folks waiting to snap a pic.  Took us about 10 minutes, chatting with a Dutch couple behind us, who ended up serving as our photographer.

Mr. & Mrs. Bunny, mugging for camera. Photo Credit: Some Dutch couple

5. Key West Cemetery (701 Passover Lane)

Like everything else down there, this cemetery isn’t your normal breed. Dating back to the 1840s, the graveyard has sections for Cuban Freedom Fighters from the Spanish American War, Confederate Navymen, and the Battleship Maine, plus some individual stones with memorable epitaphs (one woman’s reads “See? I told you I was sick.”)

BE AWARE OF…

Here’s some other info that might come in handy.

1. Chickens roam free

Key West has also become a top vacation destination for poultry.

These wandering KFC menu items date all the way back to the 19th century, when Key West was a fairly lawless fishing and sailing village. Cockfighting was a popular sport back then, mainly because ice dancing hadn’t been invented yet. When civic leaders tried to bring a little order to the island, they outlawed the feather-based brawls, so their owners either ate their warriors, or set them free. Waking up to ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ is completely normal down there.

2. Beach swimming isn’t great–Like I said, there’s rocks and coral aplenty as soon as you step into the sea, all through the Keys. If you’re jonesing for a true swim, your best bet is to head north up to Bahia Honda State Park, about 20 minutes north of Key West. Try their north side (to the left) as you enter. This is the best stretch of beach we’ve found, south of Miami. And, if you see something that looks kinda like a plastic, semi-inflated shopping bag floating on the top of the waves, don’t turn into Captain Cleanup and swim out for it. Chances are it’s a Portuguese Man o War, a fairly deadly type of jellyfish that, like an iceberg, is MUCH bigger under the water than what it looks like above it.

3. Strip Clubs–If you like to include adult entertainment in your vacation plans, KW has good (and some very bad) options.

The Good: Red Garter (208 Duval St) Across the street from Irish Kevin’s sits this gem of a gentlemen’s club. It’s clean, it’s not that expensive, and most importantly, the girls are pretty hot. Many (from what I’ve heard!) are from eastern Europe, and have the sexy accent to go with the sexy view. And ladies, we’ve found, no we’ve HEARD that it’s a perfectly fine and acceptable place for you to visit, with your man or on your own.

The Bad: Bare Assets (1029 Truman Ave) It’s no secret that strip clubs use sex to separate men from money. The good ones do it deftly and subtly. Bare Assets tries to do it with a sledgehammer. I must’ve had my idiot look on that night, because the bartender tried to give me the wrong change three separate times (really dude?), and several friendly ladies who stopped by to say hello between stage sessions tried to distract me so they could attempt to swipe bills from the tip stack under my beer bottle. Fail.

 Summary

It’s easy to fall in love with Key West’s beauty, charm, and “why worry?” attitude. And it’s consistent. No matter what’s going on in the world, or how much you’ve changed since your last visit, returning there still feels as comfortable and natural as a great old pair of jeans.

Lunch and margaritas at Fogarty’s, about an hour after we landed.

And it doesn’t take long to get into the Key West flow, once you arrive. Be prepared: you’ll likely be engaged in friendly conversation with complete strangers, you’ll probably try a food or drink you’ve never had before, you’ll almost certainly be in the general vicinity of drunk people, and you may decide to get a tattoo. But all that is the easy part.

The toughest thing to do is leave.

Got a Key West story or tip to share? Lay it on us.