Think Key West and you’re sure to conjure colorful Margaritaville images of fun and funky Duval Street, and the exuberant daily celebration of sunset at Mallory Square complete with unicyclists, fire-eaters, hoop-jumping cats and tightrope-walking dogs. They’re all still there. Ernest Hemingway wannabes still seek out Sloppy Joe’s Bar, and the crowd still cheers or boos depending on the pyrotechnics of the sun’s performance as it drops into the sea.



ABOVE: THE MARQUESA HOTEL IS A CHIC COLLECTION OF FOUR BUILDINGS DATING FROM THE 1800S, WRAPPED AROUND A LUSH TROPICAL GARDEN AND A PAIR OF SWIMMING POOLS.


But if you haven’t lately made the famously eccentric scene, it may come as a surprise that the two-by-four-mile island sports some 80 restaurants and bars, and is fast becoming a food town. The best time to check out the burgeoning culinary picture? Make it the annual Food and Wine Festival, on tap this year from July 29 through August 7. Among events starring local chefs of note:

• At Michael’s Restaurant, Chef Michael Wilson will demonstrate the preparation of four sumptuous desserts and pair them with fine wines.

• Chef Alice Weingarten will begin with a wine reception and follow with a three-course dinner at Alice’s Key West.

• Pisces Restaurant will combine champagne with Chef Andrew Berman’s house specialties featuring lobster and oysters.

• Chef Paul Orchard of Mangoes Restaurant will serve up signature dishes in an entry called “Around the World with 18 Wines.”

Then there are the only-in-Key-West adventures in eating you can encounter on your own, such as brunch at Blue Heaven Restaurant, where the eye-opening offerings range from freshly-caught fish to freshly-baked banana bread. The setting: a pleasantly shaded courtyard with painted picnic tables – and a population of roving resident roosters.

For such a small swatch of turf, the insouciant island boasts a number of prime historic attractions – not to mention art galleries – along its easygoing streets rich in Victorian gingerbread architecture accented by the flaming flowers of Royal Poinciana trees. Much of the bounty can be soaked up via rental bike or on foot, with the occasional stop to fortify yourself with a conch fritter or a portion of key lime pie. Or you can hop aboard an Old Town Trolley for a narrated tour, stepping off to explore and reboarding free as the trolley loops around.

Be sure to take in the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, partly furnished with Parisian pieces collected by second wife Pauline, who swapped the Key West-style ceiling fans for stylish chandeliers. Prowling the premises are descendants of Hemingway’s renowned six-toed cats with names the likes of Scott Fitzgerald and Bette Davis. In his separate studio, Hemingway turned out For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Another must-see: the Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum. Beginning in 1946 President Truman spent 175 days altogether on the island, changing to a splashy tropical shirt on arrival. In the collection of memorabilia is a blow-up of the famous photo of Truman at his piano with a young Lauren Bacall stretched seductively across it.

My fave place to stay in the southernmost city is the chic little Marquesa Hotel, a collection of four buildings dating from the 1800s, wrapped around a lush tropical garden and a pair of swimming pools. Adjoining the hotel is Café Marquesa, where Chef Susan Ferry adds status to Key West’s spreading reputation as a restaurant town.

Information: (800) ASK-KEYS.


 

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