Key West is neither fancy nor especially urbane - it's just a great place to laze in a deck chair on a bougainvillea-choked lanai, browse for beachwear and souvenirs along the main drag, Duval Street, or relax on a restaurant patio noshing on raw oysters and sipping mango iced tea or mojitos.
For a seasonal tourist town, Key West has plenty to offer when it comes to dining and nightlife. Few places draw more raves for outstanding food than Alice's Key West, where chef Alice Weingarten serves some of the most inventive food in town, including delicious smoked-salmon Benedict at breakfast. A departure from Key West's predominant laid-back tropical look, Square One is a sophisticated restaurant with white table linen and fine china. The regionally inspired Continental cuisine includes escargot baked in a crepe with fresh spinach, garlic, feta, and a tomato beurre blanc. It's a top choice for a romantic evening.
One of the better Italian restaurants in town, and also one of the gayest, La Trattoria has two dining rooms - the smaller one romantic and intimate, the larger better for groups of friends. The straightforward cooking draws high praise for such tasty creations as local shrimp sautéed with garlic, fresh tomatoes, and herbs de Provence in a white wine, lemon, and butter sauce. One of Duval Street's true places to be seen, Mangoes brims with colourful sorts. The composed salads, pastas, and grills - all with nouvelle Florida touches - are commendable. Consider rib eye steak Caribe (pan-charred with tamarind steak sauce and yucca).
Seven Fish, which occupies an old luncheonette and has a sleek, sophisticated interior, serves seafood-oriented bistro fare, such as crab and shiitake mushroom ravioli. The slogan at Mangia Mangia is "pasta to the people," a philosophy reflected by the many varieties of heavenly homemade pasta, all fairly priced. The painstakingly preserved building has a lovely, quiet garden and redbrick patio in back. You'll need luck and persistence most nights to get a seat at Camille's, a small storefront bistro, but the friendly vibe and down-home comfort food are worth the trouble. Expect good salads and sandwiches, such as Philly cheese steak, and delicious pancakes for breakfast.
For arguably the best sandwiches and wraps on the island, try Lobo's - the oyster roll with cheddar, bacon, and basil tartar sauce is a stand-out. El Siboney is a zero-atmosphere eatery - _the_ place in town for humble, stick-to-your-ribs Cuban fare. Rickety tables are set with plastic tablecloths and paper napkins. Try such Havana specialties as conch chowder, garlic chicken, stuffed shrimp and crabs, platanos (plantains), and a sweet flan to top it off. As for traditional Cuban sandwiches, tiny 5 Brothers Grocery - on a side street in the historic district - serves the best around.
Much of the gay social activity in Key West takes place at resorts, some of which provide refreshments and snacks to guests during the afternoon and early evening. A handful of properties have bars open to the public, among them Pearl's Rainbow, the town's only guest house exclusively for women, and the ultra-cruisy, all-male Island House, which also has an excellent restaurant.
Key West has a number of inns that cater either exclusively or predominantly to the gay market. One of the best is Alexander's, a long-popular gay resort with the relatively unusual policy of being both clothing-optional and welcoming to both women and men. This makes Alexander's ideal for gay guys travelling with lesbian friends, or for any queer vacationers who enjoy a mixed-gender atmosphere. The effect is that the mood around the pool and hot tub tends to be less cruisy than at single-gender resorts. Aromatic tropical flowers, sundecks, rattan and wicker furnishings, and sparkling tiled bathrooms impart Alexander's with a classy but casual look.
Also welcoming of both women and men but drawing a predominantly male crowd, Big Ruby's is less than a block from Duval Street, hidden behind high walls from noise and street traffic. The grounds feature towering palm trees and fragrant flowers, and an abundance of sundecks. Rooms are warm, contemporary, spotless, and full of light - all have TV/VCRs, mini-refrigerators, A/C, and ceiling fans. A complimentary full breakfast is included. As for the staff, you won't find a more professional bunch of guys in Key West.
Most of the town's men's resorts are along Fleming Street, the Historic District's main drag. Here you'll find Equator, which has plush rooms with contemporary Caribbean-influenced furniture. Designer fabrics, feather pillows with comforters, Mediterranean-tile floors, large closets, and excellent sound insulation add to the comfort of each unit. The tradeoff is that the Equator's grounds, although nicely landscaped, are smaller than at some of its competitors; there's a compact pool and an oversize Jacuzzi tub.
For years the sprawling Island House - a former cigar factory on the eastern edge of the Historic District - was synonymous with sex, sleaze, and shabbiness. It's still synonymous with sex. But, happily, new owners have completely rebuilt the place, hired friendly and competent staff, and created lovely rooms with high-quality furnishings (all have VCR/TVs, refrigerators, safes, and plush linens). If you're seeking a steamy ambience but also first-rate accommodations and a safe, friendly environment, the Island House is your dream come true. Amenities, all of them available 24 hours, include heated pool, indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, gym, sauna, steam room, and erotic-male-video lounge.
The largest gay resort in town comprises three distinct properties - the Oasis, Coral Tree Inn, and Coconut Grove - operated by the same management. This highly social, all-male compound has rooms available in a variety of configurations and prices. The Coconut Grove is the fanciest of the three, having been completely gutted and redone following a fire in 2006 - it now has some of the cushiest accommodations in town. Next door, the Oasis has less pricey but still attractive rooms and beautiful grounds. Across the street, the Coral Tree has simpler but more affordable rooms. Guests are free to enjoy the grounds of all three properties.
Another all-male property with a somewhat cruisy vibe is the New Orleans Guest House, an attractive compound that's above the Bourbon Street Pub, right in the centre of the Duval Street action. Rooms are well-outfitted and attractively decorated, and rates moderately priced.
Known as the Rainbow House until new owners took over a several years ago, the 38-room Pearl's Rainbow is Key West's only resort that's exclusive to women. Rooms are nicely done, with rattan and wicker furniture, pastel-hued walls, large TVs, and refrigerators. Many different configurations are available, from simple budget-oriented units set away from the noise of the pools and decks, to more spacious rooms closer to the action, some with kitchenettes or separate sitting areas.
The resort encompasses several buildings, including some cute cottages that once provided housing for the workers of a cigar factory that formerly occupied the main building. There are two heated pools, spacious sundecks, and lots of opportunity to chat with other guests. This is a wonderful hideaway, whether you're looking to make new friends or enjoy a little peace and quiet with your honey.
Most the town's gay bars are along Duval Street. Here, the La-Te-Da guest house has a poolside bar, an intimate piano bar, and the Treetop Cabaret Lounge upstairs. Down a few blocks, the New Orleans-inspired Bourbon Street Pub is a cheery place with a small bar up front with cocktail tables, a larger outdoor bar in back (along with a lively pool area and hot tub), and video screens galore. Many nights you can catch awful (but still entertaining) drag shows on the stage in back. The same owners run the lovably raffish 801 Bar, Key West's definitive neighbourhood hangout since the 1970s.
There's almost always a crowd of gossipy locals around the bar. The adjacent One Saloon caters mostly to leather-and-Levi's types and is reached through 801's back door. Aqua Nightclub is best known for its raucous drag shows, which are headlined by the in-house drag troupe, the Aquanettes. This lively place also has strippers some nights, an impressive dance floor with high-tech laser-and-sound shows, and a cozy video bar.
The Little Black Book:
Alexander's (305-294-9919 or 800/654-9919, www.alexghouse.com). Alice's Key West (305-292-5733, www.aliceskeywest.com). Aqua Nightclub (305-294-0555, www.aquakeywest.com). Bourbon Street Pub (305-296-1992, www.bourbonstreetpub.com). Big Ruby's (305-296-2323 or 800-477-7829, www.bigrubys.com). Camille's (703 Duval St., 305-296-4811). Coconut Grove, Oasis, and Coral Tree (800-362-7477, www.hobartresorts.com). 801 Bar (305-293-9600, www.801bourbon.com). El Siboney (305-296-4184, www.elsiboneyrestaurant.com). Equator (305-294-7775 or 800-278-4552, www.equatorresort.com). Five Brothers Grocery (305-296-5205, http://5brothersgrocery.tripod.com). Island House (305-294-6284 or 800-890-6284, www.islandhousekeywest.com). Key West Business Guild (gay) (305-294-4603, www.gaykeywestfl.com). Key West Chamber of Commerce (mainstream) (305-294-2587, www.keywestparadise.com). La-Te-Da (305-296-6706, www.lateda.com). La Trattoria (305-296-1075, www.latrattoria.us). Lobo's (305-296-5303, www.loboskeywest). Mangia Mangia (305-294-2469, www.mangiamangia.com). Mangoes (305-292-4606, www.mangoeskeywest.com). New Orleans Guest House (305-293-9800 or 888-293-9893, www.neworleanshousekw.com). Pearl's Rainbow (305-292-1450 or 800-749-6696, www.pearlsrainbow.com). Seven Fish (305-296-2777, www.7fish.com). Square One (305-296-4300, www.squareonerestaurant.com).
Andrew Collins is the author of Fodor's Gay Guide to the USA and eight additional travel guides.
Find out all the latest gay travel information by ordering the brand new 2008 Spartacus International Gay Guide. Get it online and save some money to put towards the other Bruno Gmunder guides - Hotel and Restaurant Guide and Sauna Guide.