By Steve Siciliano
The first thing you notice when you step onto the tarmac at Key West International Airport is a big red-lettered sign above the entrance to the terminal welcoming you to the Conch Republic. Within minutes of landing my wife Barb and I were climbing into a taxi. “The La Concha Hotel,” I said to the driver.
The La Concha is located on upper Duval Street about six blocks away from Sloppy Joe’s bar, arguably the epicenter of Key West’s alcohol-fueled craziness. The La Concha opened in 1926 as one of the area’s first luxury hotels and Harry Truman, Al Capone, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams were some of its notable guests.
“It’s supposed to be haunted,” Barb told me shortly after she booked our reservation.
“That’s cool,” I said. “I wouldn’t mind running into a ghost.”
“One of them supposedly hangs out in the elevators.”
“Well, we’ll have to keep our eyes open,” I replied.
While my wife was taking care of the checking in paperwork I looked around and visualized a hulking Hemingway bellied up with a Papa Doble at the lobby bar. We walked to the elevators and as soon as the doors opened Barb leaned forward and took a quick peek inside. “No ghosts,” she proclaimed, sounding a tad disappointed. I smiled and imagined how my wife would react if she ever did see a ghost.
If you like hanging out in saloons, Key West is your kind of town. If you’re walking down Duval or around Key West Bight or the vicinity of Mallory Square you can’t go twenty yards without coming across a watering hole. Barb and I avoid the overtly touristy ones. Sloppy Joe’s is perpetually packed but it’s not our type of joint. It touts itself as Hemingway’s favorite bar but in reality the famous rum-loving writer never tossed back a drink there. The original Sloppy Joe’s where he did drink his daily double Daiquiris was about a block away on Greene Street. The owner moved the bar to its present Duval location in 1938 when the landlord raised the rent. Papa was long gone by then, having moved his writing and drinking ninety miles south to Cuba.
On the other hand Captain Tony’s Saloon, the bar that’s housed in Sloppy Joe’s original location, is our type of joint. It’s a bit touristy but it’s also very much a dive. It’s dark, gritty and smoky (smoking is still allowed in bars in Key West) and is never overrun with tourists even when the cruise ships are in port. I have regularly observed folks take a few hesitant steps inside and then quickly turning and skedaddling. If they overcome their fears and do come in and order a drink you can see the disgust build on their sunburned faces. When they get back home they probably post a scathing review on the internet.
Some of our other favorite haunts are the Bull and Whistle (a good place to sit with your feet propped up on the low window sill and people watch), The Schooner Warf (good raw oysters and steamed shrimp) and, of course, the Green Parrot.
The Green Parrot attracts both tourists and locals but the tourists for the most part are older folks (fifty plus) who are on extended stays in Key West. On one afternoon we got into a pleasant conversation with a couple from Baltimore who told us about a good Beatles cover band that would be playing in the bar the following night. We returned for the show and sat with the very nice couple again. On another night we watched yet another band and sat with some male retirees who were riding Sea-doos the entire length of the Intracoastal Waterway. Not exactly my idea of a good time but hey, to each his own.
There’s a nice cigar lounge about a block from the La Costa where Barb and I spent an hour or so every day for a respite from the heat and the crowds. The fellow who runs the place lost an eye and wears a cartoonish patch (an oversized, bulging caricature of a red-veined eyeball) over his empty socket. After chatting with him for a while I asked how he lost the orb.
“She told me to stay put and I got up,” he laconically replied.
On another day an old salt who could have come straight out of central casting gabbed on for a half hour about how iguanas might eventually inherit the earth.
“The females lay twenty eggs three times a year,” he informed us. “If they ever mutate watch your asses. It’s going to be just like Jurassic Park.”
I’m thinking that the Conch Republic is about the only place you would hear crazy shit like that.