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Key West Spotlight

If you're looking for hedonism and history, you'll find them both here

By David Appell

October 27th, 2006

The fact that Key West is one of the world's most-recognized vacation destinations begs the question – what is all the fuss about? It's hardly about the beaches (which pale in comparison to others in South Florida). Rather, it's the local sense of sun-drenched hedonism that tourists find contagious – and which is entirely unique to this bit of Florida. Visiting this part of the United States almost feels like you're leaving the country – and in fact, Key West and the rest of the Keys actually attempted to make themselves an independent republic known as the "Conch Republic" in 1982. While the area obviously remained officially associated with the US, this far-flung outpost still celebrates Independence Day every April 23. At the same time, it's maintained its longstanding tradition of tolerance – so whether you're a family, single, or couple (gay or straight), you'll be welcomed in Key West.

Once there, you'll find lush tropical vegetation and Victorian architecture (ranging from dollhouse-cute to mansion-grandiose) that make for street after street of charming little guesthouses and landscaped oases. By night, you can stay up til dawn at the colorful, sometimes rip-roaring, bars that line Duval Street – and spend the next day recovering with any one of a myriad of day cruises offering snorkeling, fishing or, if you wish, just plain drinking. But Key West is more than just a pretty party town – far from it in fact. A wealth of attractions and museums relating to its rich literary, maritime, and other history, plus a slew of interesting little shops to browse – all of it with the gleaming, glittering, ever-present sea as a backdrop. Add to that a quirkiness that comes across in the traditionally irreverent, salty personalities of the locals (dubbed Conchs, after the island's symbol, a mollusk with the distinctive pink seashell) – some go back generations, some are brand-new to the island, but almost all came check out of the mainstream rat race, and perhaps find their very own Margaritaville.

If you've only a few days to spare to find your lost shaker of salt, don't fret, as three days is enough time to get a good sense of Key West. Rent a moped from one of the many providers and cruise the streets to ogle the beautiful Victorian-style homes it's famous for, tour the Hemingway House and see the famous six-toed cats that roam the property, experience the sunset celebration in Mallory Square, and stroll the length of Duval Street after dark. If you have five days, do all of the above, but also hit the beach and catch some rays, book yourself on a day cruise of snorkeling or fishing, and pose for a photo at the "Southernmost Point in the US." If you have a week to spare, balance your time in Key West with a side trip or two – there are several other Keys worth exploring and Miami is just a few hours away. The bottom line at this end of the line is that the spirit of Key West is all about letting go – of your worries, of your hang-ups, of your real life. If you don't have fun here, well, to paraphrase Jimmy Buffett, that's your own damn fault.

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