For a small place, Key West has a big reputation. Eccentric. Quirky. Offbeat. Nonconformist centre of the Conch Republic. Laid-back haven of aging hippies. Magnet for new-agers. Unique. Completely charming.
Much has been written about the island-city and its over the top festivals such as Hemingway Days, when white-bearded Papa look-alikes roam the streets, and Fantasy Fest with its edgy Pimp and Ho Party and its Dungeons and Dragons soiree. Ditto for its many attractions -- the Ernest Hemingway House Museum, where the author wrote some of his best work, the Harry S. Truman Little White House, the rollicking nightlife along Duval Street, the Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, the Shipwreck Museum, the Lighthouse Museum, the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum, Audubon House, an aquarium and more.
Suffice to say there is lots for visitors to see and do on Key West.
But somehow, on a two-day visit with colleagues, our resolve to pack in as much sightseeing as possible floated away on gentle ocean breezes. Our initial drive to see it all fizzled fast, replaced by a decidedly Caribbean vibe.
Perhaps while taking in the hoopla of the nightly Mallory Square Sunset Celebration, we had been dazed by the green flash -- the fleeting glimpse of neon green that sometimes appears when the sun sinks below the horizon.
Maybe, as winter weary Canadians, we had soaked up too much sunshine while splashing in warm ocean waters during an afternoon snorkelling and dolphin-watching tour with Sunset Watersports.
Or, we may have slipped into a collective food coma -- a stupor-like state induced by one excellent meal after another. A possibility since all our meals -- even breakfast -- were completed with generous slices of Key Lime pie.
Pie for breakfast? What's a visitor to do? The sweet-tart concoction dominates dessert menus at every restaurant from swanky hotels to roadside dives. And every local eatery worth its conch fritters boasts theirs is the best Key Lime pie in all of the Florida Keys. So you just have to try it -- again and again -- to compare.
Sooner or later, you'll be debating the serious Key Lime questions: What makes the best topping? Meringue or whipped cream? What makes the best crust? Graham-cracker crumbs or pastry?
When that happens, it's a signal Key West has captured your heart -- and stomach.
Pie aside, dining outdoors is a particular pleasure that started with our first meal -- lunch at our hotel, the lushly landscaped waterside Parrot Key Resort. At poolside Cafe Blue, we nibbled fresh salads of grilled shrimp, toasted pecans, sliced strawberries and balsamic vinegar, accompanied by delicious-but-deadly creamy Caribbean-style cocktails, and capped off with our first taste of the ubiquitous pie -- this version garnished with mounds of whipped cream, berries and fresh fruit slices.
Sultry breezes that night prompted us to take a table on the verandah at El Meson de Pepe, a former cigar factory and Key West institution. We sipped mojitos, sampled popular Cuban dishes (Lechon Asado, Ropa Vieja, Picadillo Habanero) and polished off more pie, this time topped with meringue and drizzled with lime and raspberry syrup.
More al fresco meals -- and more slices of pie -- followed.
Next morning it was breakfast in the leafy courtyard at the funky Blue Heaven with its colourful improv art, free roaming chickens and cats, decadent Lobster Eggs Benny and pie, this one with golden mile-high meringue. (Whole pies can be purchased to go from the bakery.)
Despite the filling breakfast, appetites re-emerged in time for lunch -- excellent grilled fish tacos, conch fritters and crab cakes at the open air Conch Republic Seafood Co., a harborside establishment that also serves generous helpings of Key Lime pie, and sells sauces, spices and souvenirs.
For dinner that night, we made a short trip to Hogfish Bar & Grill, a highly rated local hangout on nearby Stock Island. Most diners opt to sit outside at picnic tables and take in the views of Safe Harbor. Hogfish (grilled with blackened scallops, on a hearty sandwich with cheese and onions, or Panko-encrusted with shrimp ceviche) is the house specialty. A blackboard lists more just-off-the-boat specials. And, of course, we finish the meal with pie!
We're scheduled to leave Key West the next morning, and explore some of the other Keys. Before hitting the road, we fuel up on breakfast -- and pie -- at Schooner Wharf, another funky waterfront place.
While we're sad to say goodbye to Key West, we aren't one bit worried about missing out on our new food staple. We've heard U.S. 1 from Key West to Key Largo is the official Key Lime Pie trail!
NEED TO KNOW
One of the most popular things to do in Key West is to snap a photo with the colourful buoy marking the southernmost point of the continental U.S. From there it's 145 km to Cuba, 257 km to Miami.