Languid, lovable Key West -- a place apart

Wander through Key West's warren of streets long enough, and you'll likely come upon that peculiar kind of summery peace, where the sun has baked everything into submission and palmy shade provides quiet refuge from which to gaze out upon the hot little world around you.

This hot little world offers weather and a charming ambiance one doesn't even dream of in the chilly North. Its intertwining side streets and lanes are lined with small houses sporting wooden verandas, latticework shutters, and a deep Southern charm. Among these chicly faded relics, there is the nostalgic feel of Tennessee Williams, who often wintered (and sometimes summered) here, and his lyrical images of the ruined South.

Too bad, then, that Key West's quaint homes and historical sites often seen like wares in a curio shop, complete with price tags.Sightseeing "trains" (really jeeps dressed up as locomotives) snake by each and every street corner and saloon that once saw Tennessee Williams take a stroll or Ernest Hemingway drop in. One is often reminded of the narrow, heavily overcommercialized streets in Greenwich Village, once prowled by Eugene O'Neill and James Dean.

The Village was transformed from a place where it was possible to melt into the picturesque anonymity of daily life into an attraction that seems to exist only for the mild interest and conversation value it offers the paying tourist, and that same metamorphosis is in full flower here.

One unfortunate consequence of this is that Key West long ago ceased to be the hideaway that beckoned literary lions to its secret pleasures.

Business has bounced back from the 25 to 30 percent drop in tourism that took place after the 1980 Cuban refugee influx as rumors of disease and rampant crime kept hotels empty. Today, Key West once again enjoys choked streets and crowded restaurants, where key lime pie, the delicious native dessert, tops off a frequently overpriced bill of fare.

Does all of this mean that the four-square-mile island town is not enjoyable?

Hardly. For all the honky-tonk of the downtown strip in season, this most southeasterly tip of the continental US still offers pleasures to snow birds who eschew the attractions of the Gold Coast. And unless you fly here direct you'll likely come down the Gold Coast to the necklace of keys strung with slender bridges spanning waters of increasingly limpid, iridescent colors. In good weather, the journey can help you unwind; in rainy weather, you may just find yourself unraveling instead.

Most folks don't come here just to swim and sun. And although many come to fish, the real game in Key West is taking-in-the-island, on foot or by rented bicycle or moped.

My 13-year-old son and I chose to get around by moped, which gave us a chance to take in a lot of sum as we explored the byways of the town and circled its watery perimeter. We noted with interest, and used the services of, the Margaret Truman Drop-Off Laundry (so named because it sits at the corner of Margaret and Truman Streets). We also sampled the food at the overrated and too expensive Buttery Restaurant, at the far more succulent buffet at the Pier House , and at numerous ice cream parlors.

There is something quite special, we found, about buzzing around these narrow streets, all wind-blown and sunbaked, discovering little houses and the ordnance of bygone eras.

The aforementioned tourist "trains" offer a first crack at memorizing the topography of the old town and recognizing the boundaries that demark old-Florida charm from small-town Florida suburb.

The military base here served as winter White House to several Presidents until the time of John F. Kennedy. Thomas Edison once encamped and tinkered in it. Now there are rows of barracks and houses, all falling to rot as the military establishment decides what to do with them.

No such fate has befallen lucrative drawing cards like Hemingway's house, with its 17th-century midwifery chair, wide verandas, and southerly charm. It is said that 75 percent of the author's lifework was done in this house. If you are wise enough to sneak away from the trivia-choked tour spiel and spend a few moments on the veranda, or in one of his rooms, you'll get a feeling for the tender quiet that gave Hemingway a pause in time in which to work.

You'll pay $2 to $2.50 for the privilege of soaking up this historical atmosphere in a string of such places throughout Key West. More enjoyment can be had breezing around them than actually being marched through their storied hallways and bedchambers.

It is then that you discover another face of Key West: quiet lawns with small Florida houses; a park where old men play leisurely games of croquet; people sitting under a tree reading.

For the most part, though, this is not what Key West is all about. The stock in trade of the island's tourist commerce is an aquarium and a light-house museum, Flipper's Key West (a dolphin and sea lion show), and the nation's southernmost house. It's gathering with a multitude to watch the sunset at Mallory Square, or relaxing at one of the island's pricey resort hotels.

The chamber of commerce lists 27 "recommended hotels and motels," ranging in price from $22 to $250 a night, and 19 guesthouses running from about $17 to $70 .

Most notable (and expensive) among the resort hotels is the fabulous Marriott Casa Marina, with its spreading lawns sloping to the sea and all the gracious appointments of a rejuvenated Old World hotel. The whirlpool, tennis courts, and other accouterments make it a sufficient playground from which the well-heeled venture only to browse and eat.

More typical of the island's hotels and motels are the smaller, only slightly overpriced lodgings -- most of them affordable if not exactly capacious. Still, 46 houses of accommodation in a town with fewer than 25,000 permanent residents is a lot. That ratio of players to stayers may give you an index of just how much of a tourist town Key West really is.

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