On a sultry evening in Key West, my friend and I strolled down Duval Street, towards the Gulf of Mexico. Nearing the water’s edge, we followed the garden pathways of the Pier House, the island’s first luxury resort, to watch Key West’s favorite cabaret act, Carmen Rodriguez. Her smooth voice gave joyous, soulful expression to the jazzy piano bar tunes. Carmen is a regular here, and listening to her at the Pier House is one of the sophisticated pleasures of the island.
Key West can be best described as a town divided. One half is devoted to the massive tourism industry that attracts visitors from all over the world. These vacationers shop, eat and drink their nights away at the Duval Street shops and enjoy the relaxing ambiance of Jimmy Buffet’s famous haunt, “Margaritaville.” The other half is an urbane center of music, art, and literature that draws repeat visitors and winter residents. Personally, that’s what keeps me coming back.
The premier winter season cultural event is the annual Key West Literary Seminar. In January 2008, more than thirty authors, scholars and critics discussed the expanding boundaries of contemporary literature under the title: “New Voices: Where Have We Been? Where Are We Going?” The seminar expounded upon what it means to be a new voice in literature and on how a new voice gets heard. Both new and established writers came for the event and joined in discussing the future of writing.
A featured participant was short story writer and novelist, Ann Beattie, known for her work on the generation of Americans who grew up in the sixties. Park City, Beattie's 1998 story collection, chronicles the Woodstock generation from youth to middle age as they experiment with drugs, travel aimlessly, settle down, break up and finally, find resolution.
Other notable authors at the seminar included Annie Dillard, Edmund White, Robert Richardson, Judy Blume, and Mark Doty. Among the new voices, Uzodinma Iweala of Nigeria read from his novel Beasts of No Nation, which tells the story of Agu, a child soldier, fighting in a West African civil war.
The event takes place at the San Carlos Institute, a Spanish colonial-style Duval Street building constructed in 1871 by Cuban exiles of Key West as an educational, civic, and patriotic center. The history is richly drawn in the welcome by Institute president Rafael Peñalver, who then joins participants at the festive party.
Not surprisingly, the seminar is always sold out. In January 2009, with a topic of historical fiction and speakers such as Gore Vidal, there will be two sessions to accommodate the expected subscriptions.
The big seminar finale is the music and champagne extravaganza at the Key West Historical Museum, which in 2008 featured take-off sculptures of famous paintings, such as American Gothic and the Mona Lisa, and photos like Marilyn Monroe with her skirt flying up
After filling my plate with key lime pie and chocolate cake at the desert table up, I chatted with resident artists standing near their creations. Among them were Deborah Goldman and Perry Arnold, both whose preferred medium is wood, although used in very different styles.
The art scene is central here. I always stop at the Studios of Key West to see what the local artists are creating. Hayes Blinckmann paints with a feminist theme. Note the titles: “Joy of Cooking,” “Wicked,” and “Pin-up.”
Then there is Key West art of the natural variety. The famous Key West sunset paints the sky over the Gulf of Mexico in vibrant pinks and reds. One of the trademark evenings out on the island: a sunset cruise on the Liberty Clipper. The music and menu choices on the cruise are Caribbean. Steel drums play in the background as the aromas of Mojo & Sour Orange Slow Roasted Pork and Jamaica Citrus Rubbed Grilled Chicken fill the air. And of course, the wine always flows well into the night.
On other days, we enjoy lunch at a local favorite eatery – the Rusty Anchor. The restaurant is located on Stock Island, Key West’s unspoiled, slightly seedy neighbor. Stock Island shows what Key West was like before it went upscale. The restaurant’s atmosphere is casual with wood-paneling and trophy fish decorating the walls, and food that is down home and plentiful. On my last visit I sampled the specialties -- Conch Chowder, Mahi mahi and Grouper fish. All menu options worth a return visit.
If you like to lunch in typical resort style, try the Double Tree (Hilton) Hotel. We sat on the Osprey Veranda overlooking the pool and noted an interesting mix of clientele: business men and women taking a break from their meetings sat near laid back locals hanging out at the Gumbo Limbo Bar. We sat in the patio shade enjoying our luscious dishes of shrimp and fish.
Just in case you forget that Key West is very much part of the country (the southernmost tip of the United States), the peace demonstrators on Duval Street are there to remind you. They get a good response from passers-by and are just as much a part of Key West culture as the Literary Seminar and cabaret.
If you go:
- Closest airport is Key West.
- Pier House, One Duval Street, 305-296-4600, 800-723-2791. http://www.pierhouse.com/
- Carmen Rodriguez, http://carmenkeywest.com/ .
- The Studios of Key West, Historic Armory, 600 White Street, Key West. 877-ART-TSKW, 305-296-0458, http://www.tskw.org/.
- Liberty Clipper Caribbean dinner sails from Schooner Wharf Tues, Thurs and Sun, 5 - 7:30 p.m.winter, 6 - 8:30 p.m. summer; Sunset cruise sails Wed, Fri and Sat, 5 - 7 p.m. winter, 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. summer. Reservations 305-292-0332, http:// www.libertyfleet.com / .
- Double Tree Grand Key Resort, 3990 S Roosevelt Blvd, 305-293-1818, 888-310-1540, www.grandkeyresort.doubletree.com/.
© Lucy Komisar