People assuredly come to Key West for a variety of things … to fish the diverse and fertile waters that surround it, to party like Buffett and Hemingway on Duval Street, to wait in line to get their picture made next to the Southernmost buoy, to dress up like a pirate and yell at people to watch you swallow swords … all sorts of things.
On this picture-perfect, 80-degree-and-sunny morning, Betsy and I came to Key West to look at butterflies. The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory sits at the relatively quiet southern end of Duval Street, and it was probably the most enjoyable and interesting thing we did in the historic city.
After donating a few bucks to the cause, we spent the next hour wandering in the tropical setting of the climate-controlled and impressively-exotic conservatory. Thousands of butterflies and moths fluttered about us, many of which displayed colors and color-combinations that truly defied description. We snapped dozens of photos, as we tried in vain to capture the beauty of these remarkable bugs.
We were so awe-struck by the experience, we donated significantly more bucks to the cause to purchase a butterfly display case from the gift shop. It was well worth it, though, and the case was anxiously waiting for us on our front porch a few days later.
Post-butterflies, we strolled down to Duval to grab a bite to eat and to eventually join the swarm of tourists at the famous Sloppy Joe’s salon. After coordinating our positioning in front of the establishment’s webcam (to the delight of my mother-in-law, who had been trying her best to keep up with our meanderings throughout the Keys), we bellied up to the bar and ordered a brew.
To have and have a lot.
Later, we walked off the beer by strolling one more time through a much-less-crowded Mallory Square. Even though it was mid-afternoon, the street vendors – including the frustrated sword-swallowing pirate – were already staking claim to spots for the upcoming sunset rush. Roosters, chickens and regiments of peeping chicks controlled the perimeter of the square, as seagulls soared above. We snapped a few more photos before making a long walk past Hemingway’s house to our parked car.
Key West was interesting. So many words come to mind to describe it, yet for each word, it's antonym would also be appropriate. It's historic, scenic, significant … but also expensive, overrun with tourist-y attractions, and commercialized to near disturbing levels. It was not the same Key West Hemingway lived in, nor was it close to the place Betsy enjoyed when she visited it in her teens. But, we were glad to give it a shot and we had a good time, but we were perfectly fine leaving it all behind in our rear view mirror.
For the first time in over a week, we drove north. As the sun set behind us, we motored along in the orange light towards our next destination: Zaza Pizzeria Napoletana in Sugar Loaf Key. Betsy had read about it in Keys’ visitor magazine, and after eight straight days of seafood and one stray burger, we were craving pizza. The restaurant is authentically Italian, yet presents almost zero curb appeal, mainly because it’s hidden in the relatively nondescript Sugar Loaf Lodge (which we drove right by, despite being on the lookout for it). Yet, it was packed with people. Always a good sign. We ordered a pizza to go, then enjoyed the hell of out it as we followed red tail lights past Bahia-Honda, the Seven-Mile Bridge, Hawk’s Cay, our beloved Islamorada, Key Largo and the eastern edge of the python-infested Everglades.
We planned to find a place to stay just north of Miami, which would position us for a variety of opportunities the following day. Unfortunately, an enormous Miami boat show and an equally impressive West Palm Beach horse show had every hotel booked solid. So, we drove along I-95 in the dark as crotch-rockets and halogen-lit sports cars rattled our Honda as they darted about the six lanes of traffic, risking their lives and ours in order to quickly make it to wherever they had to be. Where were Crockett and Tubbs when you needed them?
At 2 a.m., we pulled into the Hilton Garden Inn in Fort Pierce, almost 290 miles from Key West, and much farther than we had planned to drive when we exited the Old Town. Exhausted, we dragged our overnight bags and a cooler of melted ice and bottled water to the front desk clerk, who was as nice and helpful as anyone we had encountered on this wonderful trip. Discounted, but not defeated, we were asleep within minutes of putting the “Do Not Disturb” hanger on our door. Tomorrow, we thought we’d drive the coast up to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the country.