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Hidden Gems: Key West, Florida
Being a foodie at heart, Five Brothers Grocery, at the corner of Southard and Grinnell Streets, is usually the first place I send people. This unassuming Cuban grocery serves up what most locals agree to be the best coffee and sandwiches in town. Order a cafe con leche, or, even better, a buchi, a single shot of sweet Cuban espresso. You can't really go wrong with any of the sandwiches, but a Cuban mix or a midnite (like a Cuban but on a sweet roll) might be your best bet. A side of bollitos, blackeyed pea fritters with garlic, and a bottle of Malta Hatuey, and you're all set.
Just around the corner from Five Brothers is perhaps my favorite spot in town, the Key West Cemetery. The main entrance you see here is at the intersection of Margaret and Angela Streets and Passover Lane. Sure, there are a couple of other public parks on the island, but this is by far the most tranquil area you'll find.
Since everything in town is pretty close to sea level, most of the graves in the cemetery are above ground, similar to New Orleans. Since space is so precious, they've taken to stacking people, as you can see on the right.
If you didn't eat your lunch from Five Brothers on one of the benches outside, take it over to the cemetery. In the eastern corner, near the intersection of Frances and Olivia Streets, you'll fine some shaded benches.
These benches are also conveniently located near what is perhaps one of the most frequently photographed epitaphs in the world:
If you leave the cemetery and hang a left on Southard Street, you'll eventually come to Truman Annex and the entrance to Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park (coincidentally, this route also takes you by The Green Parrot Bar). Ft. Zach is home to the best beach on the island. While you probably won't be all alone on the beach, the park is large enough that you won't have to scramble for a spot in the sun or in the shade of the Australian Pines.
The park closes at sunset, which is when it's at its best.
Once the sun is down, a great place to survey the town is the top of the city parking garage, at the corner of Caroline and Grinnell Streets. The Lighthouse Museum and the top of the hotel La Concha are also good for a bird's eye view, but the garage is much quieter. There's a rear stairwell on James Street (also the site of Finnegan's Wake, another good watering hole).
For those of you coming to Key West to shop, I suggest Bésame Mucho, a small boutique at 315 Petronia St. It's a great mix of classy little imports, from soap to chocolate, linens to jazz. Truly, a breed apart from most of the schlock shops in town.
Lastly, a spot I don't see nearly enough of, but still one I suggest everyone visit, is Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden. Located at 1 Free School Lane, on Simonton Street, between Fleming and Southard Streets, this enormous garden occupies the center of a city block and features an incredible variety of palms, fruit trees and orchids.
Admission is $6, I believe.
As I said, these are the places I usually send people. Overall, my advice to anyone visiting Key West for the first time would be to spend an evening away from Duval Street and just wander around the streets and lanes of Old Town.
[All photos taken by Nick Vagnoni except Bésame Mucho and Ft. Zachary Taylor, taken by John Vagnoni]