By Elaine Glusac
Wearing capris and bright yellow knee socks, Dominique LeFort goosesteps before the crowd as he introduces his troUpE of domestic felines trained to jump through flaming hoops like circus lions.
“Dog people,” he laughs maniacally, “go back to your seats!”
There aren’t any seats on Mallory Square, the sunset-facing Key West waterfront where a raucous carnival of fire-breathers, tightrope-walkers and, yes, house cat trainers takes place nightly, abetting the Florida Keys’ reputation as a haven for dropouts. True, the islands that trail off the Florida peninsula have long welcomed those seeking sanctuary on the country’s fringes, beginning with Colonial-era pirates through artists like Jimmy Buffett. The latter cast the Keys with an enduring 5-o’clock-somewhere reputation, celebrated daily by revelers at bars lining Key West’s Duval Street.
But the drifter image, say locals, is all tourist-fodder show. “No one ends up here by accident,” confided one prominent local retailer at the new gastropub 2¢ on Key West. “We choose it. That permeates everything.”
With the exception of a few blotto blocks on Duval, the Keys blend laissez-faire culture with an expansive marine wilderness and a Caribbean-influenced design aesthetic to produce one of the most distinct regions of the country. Now, direct flights to Key West from Washington D.C.’s Reagan airport offer easy access. Additional new nonstops from Baltimore-Washington International to Fort Lauderdale aboard Spirit and JetBlue airlines allow travelers to skip the snarl that is Miami in making the road trip south in search of some pre-summer heat.
What they will find en route along U.S. 1, aka the Overseas Highway, linking keys Largo to West over approximately 100 miles, is a renaissance of quirky beach style in two newly remodeled, well-located and now-stylish motels that prove affordable doesn’t have to look cheap.
On Islamorada, about 20 miles into the drive, the new Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina reinvents the former party-centric Holiday Isle hotel into a sunny 143-room shorefront base featuring walls papered in vintage postcards, terraces hung with basket chairs, and beach motifs stenciled on the walls. Playful extras include a thatch-roof tiki bar, an Astroturf-carpeted game room with a Pac-Man video game, and Dum-Dums suckers and lemonade at check-in.
The inn provides a convenient springboard for exploring the literal wild side of the Keys. A 3-story-tall bottlenose dolphin landmarks the Dolphin Research Center on Grassy Key, 24 miles south. Inside the entertaining oceanfront complex, visitors can swim with dolphins or help researchers perform playful hide-and-seek trials.
“If you care more about the dolphins you see here, you’ll care more about the dolphins you see out there,” said marketing director Mary Stella, indicating the open ocean.
Similarly, the nearby Turtle Hospital raises awareness and cash by ushering curious visitors through the sea-glass-green complex, a former Gulf-front motel rehabbed as a rescue center for sea turtles ranging from a 375-pound amputee green to loggerhead hatchlings. The aforementioned green, named Farley, was released back into the wild last July, one of more than 1,200 turtles the center has rescued.
“It’s not the face of the Keys,” said manager Bette Zirkelbach, leading a tour from the X-ray room to seaside pools, “but people are really devoted to wildlife here.”
At the end of the island chain, Key West spreads out into a relative metropolis. But before you reach the heart of the island, lined in clapboard “conch” cottages, shade trees and captain’s mansions, the new Ibis Bay Waterfront Resort welcomes drivers with a bright neon sign at the island’s entrance. New owner Chris Holland gussied up the 1956-era motel with buckets of pastel paint, staked picket fences around the buildings, strung hammocks between the palms and installed a restaurant dockside. A stable of jet skis, paddleboards and kayaks encourages guests to explore the island rookery just offshore where ibis, namesake bird of the hotel, roost.
“The ibis is considered the bravest bird,” said Holland, explaining the resort’s name. “They are the last one to leave when a storm is coming. When the ibis leave, you need to go.”
The advice seems to echo the ghosts of islands past captured at shipwreck and maritime museums, and bail out the beach-blissed or the Duval drinkers: Where logic fails, nature provides. Yet another fitting description of the Keys.
Cheap & Chic in the Keys
• Two newly remodeled hotels offer stylish accommodations well-located for road-trippers making the drive up or down the island chain.
• On Islamorada, the new Postcard Inn includes a beach and pool on the Atlantic side. Rooms from $179; 305-664-2321, Holidayisle.com.
• On Key West, Ibis Bay Waterfront Resort also offers a beach and pool plus water sports away from the downtown crowds. Rooms from $109; 305-296-1043; Ibisbayresort.com.