Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why Key West rocks - just the first 34 reasons

I have had massive (!!) and unprecedented feedback on my previous blog called: 34 reasons why Key West is going to the dogs.

Just in case anyone had any doubt that my tongue was firmly in my cheek when I wrote it, this blog entry is dedicated to the 34 reasons why Key West rocks.

I love photographing Key West so I've also inserted some of the pics I took during my many trips to Key West.

#1 - Let's start with the obvious one: The weather. Oh yes, even the heat, the relentless sun, the humidity. They all provide Key West its DNA.

#2 - It's the only American city where you can walk everywhere and not need a car = reduced stress all round.

#3 - The architecture is so varied and stunning.

#4 - The people of Key West are one of a kind. Eccentric, laid back and proud.

#5 - It's a party town.

#6 - Margaritaville and the Parrotheads every November. Don't know why, but I love both.

Remember, as I always try to, It's 5 o'clock somewhere.

#7 - The history of Key West - for many years Florida's largest and richest city. Pirates, wrecking, sponges, turtles, cigars, railroad, navy... you couldn't make it up!

#8 - The artists of Key West. Abundant raw material has produced a vibrant art scene. My favorite: Peter Vey.

#9 - Highway 1 - the 156 mile drive down. Imagine you are Henry Flagler and it's January 22, 1912 every time you cruise the Overseas Highway.

#10 - The flight down from MIA. Witness how ridiculously narrow this beautiful string of islands really are.

#11 - That fact that there are vegetarian options in Key West - with several veggie only places.

#12 - So much sky.

(Taken from La Concha, by me, 2008)

#13 - So much sea.

#14 - Tropical magic: music, rain, storms and good looking palm trees. Why do palms look so cool all the time?

#15 - Key West sunset.

(Me kayaking off Stock Island, my best - and reddest - KW sunset ever).

#16 - The best martinis in the world. Virgilio's.

#17 - A handful of great restaurants.

#18 - A real sense of community.

#19 - An 'interesting' gay scene with gay cabaret, drag acts, a piano bar and strippers.

#20 - Audubon.

#21 - The legacy from Hemingway and Williams and the other Key West talents.

#22 - Sloppy Joe's. It's cool, just don't know why.

#23 - Blue Heaven - It's cool, too.

#24 - Key West tourist institutions: the aquarium, the Hemingway house, the Little White House, the buoy.

#25 - Key West non tourist institutions: the lighthouse, the Bight, Custom House, East Martello Museum.

#26 - Key West hidden gems: like Nancy Forrester's Secret Garden. And the Key West Botanical Garden.

#27 - Great food, great restaurants.

#28 - Fantasy Fest. Too much naked body painting. Something to tell the grandchildren about.

#29 - Nature given free reign. As if the many-coloured hibiscus, the extraordinary Royal Poinciana and the delicate frangipani weren't enough....

...In KW, as well as the beautiful, you also get the weird (I'm still talking nature, here). Check this out:

(Shaving Brush Tree in Key West, March 2008, Gecko Lane).

#30 - The weather. The sea. (Both well worth a second mention).

#31 - Widow's walks. How cool. How different.

#32 - How all of this, the people, the place, makes you feel when you are there.

#33 - Great seafood. Great drinks.

#34 - The best looking pelicans.

Hope you enjoyed as much as I did putting the list together.


Other Key West things you might like on my site....

Key West hotels - hints, tips and recommendations

Things to do in Key West - best of list, with lots of pictures and reviews

Monday, March 22, 2010

Big Ruby's guest house in Key West

Big Ruby's in Key West is no more. As I describe in my original post below Big Ruby's was on the market and was sold mid-2013. There are big changes - first, it is now called The Cabana Inn. It is no longer gay and male only, it's now adult only. So this will disappoint many of the long term gay visitors, and it's another nail in the coffin of male gay only guesthouses in Key West - down from 20 of them in the 80s to just Island House today (for male + gay only).

On the positive side, Big Ruby's was going to seed and needed new investment and TLC, and a new manager/staff… and all of this has now happened. The reviews from new visitors anyway seem positive.

If you want info on all your gay hotels and guesthouses options in Key West - click here.

Or on the Key West gay scene generally.

The above was added in January 2014.

Here is my original post from March 2010, below.

I don't know how long it's been on the market, but I notied in the Citizen this weekend that Big Ruby's Key West, the gay guesthouse just off Duval Street, is for sale for a mere $6.9m.

It a dreadful advertisement in the Citizen but I've cut and pasted it here:

It's expensive but it might be worth it: Big Ruby's is a large, beautiful property with loads of rooms. And it's a location to die for, half a block from the good (commercial/busy) end of Duval.

But there are some issues. Comapre the $6.9m price tag with the asking price of $7.8m for the Cypress House (March 2008). And remember that the Cypress House is a bigger, more historic, more popular guest house.

Which brings us to the value of the underlying business. Of course, I have not seen the P&L of Big Ruby's business - I don't know how much profit they clear a year. But personal experience and a few other clues leads me to believe that the business is on shaky ground.

Five years ago Big Ruby's was the king of gay guest houses, setting the pace and the quality by which others followed. But times have changed. If you look at TripAdvisor Big Ruby's is now ranked #39 of 99 B&Bs in Key West. Alexander's now leads the gay charts at #8. Cypress House is #26; Island House is #49.

So, TripAdvisor, who cares?

Well, actually in today's world a good (or bad) TripAdvisor ranking and review makes a massive difference. I'm a fan and swear by TripAdvisor. In this case, and having stayed in both places several times, I think TripAdvisor is a very accurate reflection of the quality of product.

Big Ruby's slide down the rankings was self-evident to anyone who stayed there and saw the decline over time. The British owners were too remote and distant, and there was dismal and unmotivated local management. The classic TripAdvisor complaint about Big Ruby's (you just have to read this one!), whist extreme and some time ago, is reflective of a deeper malaise.

Compare to the new star, Alexander's. The owner is not always present, but visits a lot. The local management are great. And the whole experience is brilliant. Note also the strategy at Alexander's of encouraging lesbians as well as gay men and also welcoming straight folks too - moving with the times.

Let's look at the stats. As of today, 9 out of the total of 46 reviews of BigRuby's were rated poor or terrible - 19%. That's a lot. Alexander's by comparison: 1 out of the 195 reviews were rated poor or terrible, 0.5%.

I do wonder why Alexander's has so many reviews. In Feb and so far in March, Alexander's has had 17 reviews. In the same time period, Big Ruby's has had 2. (The top rated B&B in Key West had 5). Maybe it's to do with the fact that Alexander's offers free on site internet access. But I suspect it's mainly to do with a younger and richer (and so more laptop literate) demographic that Alexander's enjoys.

So what?

Well, congratulations to Alexander's for setting such a great example. I am not able to assess whether Alexander's is able to command a price premium over Big Buby's (because BR's website is so bad you cannot see the cost, or availabilty, of the rooms). But I bet they do.

The good news if I were buying Big Ruby's is that there is massive opportunity. You have the property and location and some remining goodwill from past and ex-clients (just).

The bad news is that a lot needs to be done to win the business back. And, that considered, I imagine there is plenty of scope to negotiate down that very greedy $6.9m asking price.

Full disclosure: Apart from loving all the team that work there and that I stay there twice a year, I have no commercial interest in, and receive no payment from, Alexander's. I have stayed in Big Ruby's several times, although not for several years.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

34 reasons why Key West is going to the dogs

Here's why.

Reasons to be miserable:

1. It's been so cold in Key West this winter - will it ever warm up?

2. The vagrants are taking over all (both) the beaches.

3. The cruise ships are taking over.

4. The iguanas are taking over.

5. Everyone is corrupt.

6. There's more trolley tours than cars.

7. The coral has died.

8. The fish have died.

9. Cycles and scooters are out of control.

10. Cars are out of control.

11. Pedestrians are out of control.

12. There's no nudist beach.

13. There might be a nudist beach.

14. There are too many tourists that don't know what they are taking about. (me??)

15. New Key West isn't anywhere near as good as Old Key West

16. After a few years of being gentle, this year's hurricane season will be vicious.

17. It's just all too commercial.

18. There are too many condos.

19. The condo building has gone to the wall because of the recession leaving ugly holes and ugly half-finished (if you are lucky) developments all over town.

20. Old town's too crowded and so there's too many people, too much noise, litter, gum, lowlife.

21. Fewer and fewer people visit fantasy fest, and those that do are just here to shake their sexual organs around and vomit in the street.

22. Key West drinks are, on average, getting weaker by the year.

23. The 'gay scene' is boring. And the drag queens are getting uglier by the year.

24. There's only 1 Starbucks in Key West.

25. There's too many chickens, and to few cats and dogs in this town.

26. Key West menus never change.

27. No one important (=celebrity) has moved to Key West since Hemingway. No one interesting comes to Key West anymore. Just drunken tourists looking to get drunk.

28. Duval Street is an over-commercialized, boring, good for nothing, 'abusive t-shirt' ridden strip.

29. Key West 'International' airport has a silly name and it still sucks.

30. It's too hot in summer.

31. Everything from beer lobster is overpriced in Key West.

32. The mosquitoes are getting worse not better. As are the mojitos.

33. The beer's too warm and the wine's too cold.

34. There's nothing genuine about Key West anymore; it's all too fake for the tourist buck.


Some of the above is true. Most are just moans. But it doesn't really matter.

Warts and all, Key West works. It could do with some changes. But I love it.

Despite it's flaws. It's cool. And it's still far, far better than most places.

I live in Chiswick, London (UK) and today it was raining, an depressing overcast misty rain, ALL day!!!

So I'd rather be in Key West. Yes, for the weather, but also for hundreds of other reasons too...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Vegetarian restaurants in Key West

The Cafe - best vegetarian restaurant in Key West
We've been eating vegetarian in Key West's restaurants for years as my partner is a vegetarian (of the no meat, no fish and does not like mushroom variety). So here is our (and his) subjective view of the best vegetarian food to be had in Key West - both in exclusive veggie places and also in mainstream restaurants that I make him visit so I can eat steak and lobster. I keep this updated after every visit - this was last updated November 2014.

Overall / general commentary

Key West is pretty reasonable for vegetarians in Key West. Not brilliant but pretty good for a town of only 25,000 permanent residents.

It would be nice if the mainstream restaurants had more veggie, more variety and actually changed their veggie options once a year.

Key West's best vegetarian restaurant: The Cafe, A Mostly Vegetarian place

Excellent, very friendly, long established and so now gets very busy. Highly rated on TripAdvisor and by us.

Our favorites: gyoza, edemame, veggie burger, stur fry special.

Here is a full post on our experiences with lots of pictures and the menu.

Key West's veggie deli and supermarket - Help Yourself! on Fleming Street

Great options for lunch. And a store now with logs of vegan, organic and veggie if you want to cook your own.

The best of the rest
These are non vegetarian restaurants, but with veggie options. Note in most cases there is only 1 veggie option. 

Non vegetarian, a small veggie selection which is GOOD

  • New: 2cents restaurant, Appelrouth Lane. Well done, 2 cent. Veggie creativity. Roasted cauliflower hummus is excellent (lots of garlic). And a few other options. This is a great, welcome addition to the veggie roster of restaurants in Key West and loads for the meat eaters too.
  • Updated: 915 Duval Street. For many years they had a boring mushroom option - boring. Good to see (November 2014) they have upgraded this and now offer ricotta gnocchi with squash filling.

Blue Heaven  - try the Key Lime Pie martini, or two, while you wait for your table)
Sarabeth's (David's an institution and a wonderful host)
La Trattoria (don't forget the martini bar)
Old Town Mexican - great place for lunch - veggieladas are the best on the menu for vegetarians - very fresh food - several options
Mangia Mangia - pasta, pasta, pasta; but well done
Hard Rock Cafe - great Duval Street people watching the day from the outdoor terrace seating - Veggie burger is the only option for veggies
Cafe Sole - they say they have a veggie menu -never tried the place

Non vegetarian, a small veggie selection which is REALLY AVERAGE AND BORING FOR VEGGIES


Good Key West restaurants which can't be bothered to offer ANY vegetarian options AT ALL - what a SHAME!

  • Michaels
  • A & B Lobster house - what about veggie scampi or fish - it's delicious


Best vegetarian starters

Asparagus and cheese souffle at Antonia's (rich)
Black bean soup at Blue Heaven (not exactly light though!)
Edamame at the Veggie Cafe
Bruschetta at La Trattoria (lots of olive oil, maybe too much)
Funghi Fatciti at La Trattoria (lots of cream, maybe too much)

Winner: Antonia's

Best vegetarian main/entree

Veggie stir fry at Blue Heaven
Spaghetti Norma at La Trattoria (well cooked, but a bit bog standard)
Penne Arrabiata at La Trattoria (well cooked, but a bit bog standard)
Any burger, or falafel, or salad at the Veggie Cafe (but not for a big night out)
Green Chile Pepper Macaroni and 3 Cheeses at Sarabeth's

Winner: Sarabeth's

RIP veggie

Historically great veggie dishes that inexplicably were taken off the menu at the following venues and so the that great dish was consigned only to the memory:

Vegetarian Curry at 915 was great. Creative and different, especially for KW. Then he took if off the menu because it wasn't popular enough. Replaced with mushroom risotto as the only veggie main (mushroom risotto = the veggie equivalent of boiled new potatoes = death through boredom). When he brings the curry back, and he will!, we'll be back! (Note: I've just re-checked the menu. Since we were last there they have added a veggie crepe, which looks very interesting - I will review on TripAdvisor when we are next in).
Paulie's Purple Pasta (with beetroot and roast veggies and cheese) at Mango's - before the place was sold and went downhill rapidly
Also Green Republic was exclusively veggie on Fleming and was open for a few years but is now long gone. We like this place a lot, I think it was a franchise chain.

Put your money on the table: If you only went somewhere once for veggie in Key West, where would it be?

For the place: charisma and something truly different: Blue Heaven

For food: pure veggie experience with great service and max vegetarian choice: The Veggie Cafe

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Key West and Flagler's Folly

I'm reading Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford at the moment - the story of Henry Flagler - the man that gave birth to modern Miami - and his money that made the 'railroad that crossed an ocean' possible.

It's a brilliant book - I picked it up when I was visiting the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach last year ( the wonderful guide said it was the best book ever written on the subject.

A reminder of the facts:

1892 Flagler visited the seaside hamlet of Palm Beach: 'I have found a veritable paradise'

1894 one of worst freezes in Florida history (2010?). St.A frozen. He gets sent an orange blossom (=not frozen) from Miami (Fort Dallas as it was then known). He's sold; 3 days later Flagler's in Miami for the first time.

1898 'I would have been a rich man if it hadn't been for Florida.'

1899 Flagler 69. Proposed to 3rd wife (Mary Lily). Moves legal residence from NY to Florida (good move).

1905 The Keys, according to write of the day 'worthless, chaotic fragments of coral reef, limestone and mangrove swamps... and have been aptly called the sweepings and debris which the Creator hurled out to sea after he had finished shaping Florida.' Flagler visits Key West and tells everyone that he intends to bring the railroad to them. How? 'It's perfectly simple. All you have to do is to build one concrete arch, and then another, and pretty soon you'll find yourself in Key West.'

1908 Ever the marketer, Flagler demands a picture, from out at sea, of his new Long Key Viaduct; his signature and favourite bridge.

October 17 1906, October 11 1908, October 17 1910 Despite hurricanes on all these three dates, lives are lost but hard work goes on.

1912 Flagler arrives in Key West, to a reception of 10,000 people, on his own iron. 'We have been trying to anchor Key West to the mainland...and anchor it we have done.'

1935..... next post.

Real estate

Back here in the UK, Florida got a big mention last weekend in the biggest Sunday newspaper over here, the Sunday Times. Now is the time to buy apparently, for Brits in Florida.

In a feature article, 'the market in Florida has collapsed, but the worst is over.' Key West specifically was not mentioned but South Beach and Sarasota got a shout out as desirable places to buy right now.

Friday, March 5, 2010

What needs to change? Knife, fork, spoon, Key West...

I was thinking just now that in our fast paced world where everything seems to change, actually, some things stay stubbornly the same.

The trend over the last 30 years has been to converge, to minimalise, to update, to modernise, to evolve, to jump to a new technology and a new way of doing things.

But then I thought of the knife, fork and spoon. They have not changed. They have not converged or minimalised. To me there seems real opportunity here. Three becomes two?

Key West's a bit like that too. Not changing.

Is that a good thing that they've not changed? have they not changed because no one can be bothered, or because it's too much trouble to change, or because they are the best solution to the problem (of how to eat, in this case). What about just giving one of them up? And which one? The fork maybe.

I think Key West hasn't changed because it's too much trouble for the kind of folks that live there. That's not too much of a bad thing.

If we did, what bit of Key West would we give up to 'minimalize' the island? Well, unlike other towns, we've only got 1 Starbucks so we can't get rid of one of those. But do we really need Faustos? Do we need both (all!) the trolley tours? Lose one of the piers (so we lose some of the cruise ships)? Do we need all the veggie restaurants or art galleries? Sloppy Joe's is just like the Hog's Breath Saloon; Antonias is like La Trattoria - do we need both?