Key West Tableaux
The big news in Key West this winter is the sale of the Island House, the last remaining men-only guest house on the island. Opened in 1976, the Island House is often referred to as one of the most unique and longest continually operated gay guest house in the world.
“Unique” is definitely one word to describe the Island House, a place where one can enjoy a hamburger and a Bloody Mary amidst a backdrop of nudity and public sex. Some people might call that “debauched.” I prefer to label it “quaint.”
Whatever the word, it merely reaffirms for me the fact that Key West is a place that continues to defy categorization even as it changes. No single tableau truly tells its story. Here’s a quick look at what I tell people who ask me how to get an authentic Key West experience.
Spend a Day at the Beach
Key West beaches tend to be rocky and cramped. The water, though, is clear and calm, and it’s not uncommon to see little fish or baby stingrays. The southernmost beach in the United States at the end of Duval Street is one good place to while away a few hours on a lounge chair, sipping “Painkillers” from the beach bar and reading a good book. In the afternoon, Fletcher, the beach concierge, will bring around cold towels and ice smoothie shots.
The afternoon also marks the arrival of a thong-wearing octogenarian who parades up and down the beach and poses with tourists for photos. You might not admire this old boy’s backside, but you have to admire his chutzpah. I’m betting he’s an exhibitionist. And, yes, he’s always there.
The beach at Ft. Zachary Taylor is a bit more rustic. You can rent a lounger but you will need to sneak in your own libations because drinks aren’t allowed on the beach. What’s nice about “Liz Taylor Beach,” though, are the many old Australian pines that offer cooling shade when it gets too hot. For some time, there was a possibility the state was going to cut them all down because they’re not native. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.
Eat a Cuban sandwich
When you start to tire of the endless pink shrimp, stone crab claws, and ginger crusted mahi mahi, it’s time to take a break from the fine dining circuit and sample some real Key West history: the Cuban sandwich, said to have arrived in Key West in the 1860s when Cuban cigar makers fleeing Spanish domination set up their shops on the island.
A classic Cuban sandwich consists of sliced roast pork, ham, and Swiss cheese, stacked on Cuban bread and dressed simply with mustard and a dill pickle. Simple, yes, but the artistry comes with how it is finished off, lightly steamed and grilled in a special sandwich press called a la planch, and then cut in half on the diagonal.
I like the ones at Sandy’s Café on White Street. It’s a small place, connected to a Laundromat, with only a few outside stools. Chickens strut about, looking to capitalize on something dropped. The sandwich at Five Brothers on Southard Street runs a close second. Sharky’s in Dewey Beach makes the best Cuban sandwich in our area.
Patronize the Go Go Boys
Key West is about supporting the arts, in the most liberal sense of the word, which is why I suggest the well-traveled gentleman patronize the go go boys at the Bourbon Street Pub. In addition to admiring these artists for their physical attributes, I like to point out the similarities of the go go boys to the five-toed cats at the Hemingway House.
Say what? Seriously, they remind me of the cats of Key West. For starters, they all sort of look alike and there seems to be more and more of them each year. They’re athletic and rather aloof until they decide to hunt, then they cautiously creep along the top of bar, deftly avoiding cocktail glasses and spilled drinks in pursuit of their prey. A quick jump and all of a sudden they’re down onto the floor, rubbing up against you for a little attention, a scratch behind the ear, or perhaps a five dollar bill slipped discretely into the pouch of a jockstrap. $20 will buy you an artistic five-minute lap dance behind a blue velvet curtain…
Grab a Workout
There’s nothing worse than coming back from a nice long vacation and finding your work clothes have shrunk. That’s why I try to get in a few workouts when I’m on the Island. There aren’t a lot of options but there is a great option, and it’s called Old Town Fitness.
From the outside it’s an unassuming one story concrete building. On the inside, though, it’s another world, a throwback to a no frills era when men lifted weights and didn’t take spinning classes. Paintings and photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bodybuilder not the actor, grace the walls. Flags from a dozen nations hang from the ceilings. There is no air conditioning, no water fountain, no towel service, and no pretension. Wagner was playing loudly the first time I went and a huge shirtless man who looked like Thor entered with a chainsaw—just a local landscaper coming in for a lunchtime workout. It’s that kind of place and Hollywood couldn’t design it any better.
So there you have it, Key West the way I like it, funky and a little off kilter. And despite its declining popularity as a gay resort, Key West still calls to me in a way other places cannot. There’s a little slogan about Key West that’s growing in popularity: Key West, where the weird go pro. That’s about as close to spot on as it gets.
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town. More Rich Barnett