Escape from Paradise with Ingrid Lemme-Chalut

Winter 2021

Key Largo and Key West, via Sebring!

Ingrid Lemme-Chalut

Key West had been on our bucket list for a while. After all most of our traveling friends had either visited, returned frequently, or like us dreamt about discovering the southernmost point in the contiguous United States and the westernmost island connected by highway of the Florida Keys. Key West is a port of call for many passenger cruise ships and that very port was one of the reasons why we had booked a last minute cruise with Holland America in February 2020 because it included Key West as one of their ports to visit. Unfortunately for us at that time Key West as our first port of call was cancelled due to an approaching storm, but in retrospect we are glad they did because we got to experience Hemingway’s playground close up and not just for a day. This time we were traveling by car, we’d been advised not to miss the stunning views of the turquoise waters while crossing over the many bridges after we came into Key Largo.

Since we were driving from the north we decided to take the route through Florida’s heartland and stopped for the night in Sebring, about an hour and a half south of Orlando. A golf buddy of my husband’s has a winter home there and had told him about Sebring’s beautiful lakes and multitude of golf places. Here we stayed at The Inn on the Lakes and to our surprise, in one of the most creatively designed suites we’ve come across in our travels. The BHDM Designer firm out of New York did a fabulous job! With a nice pool and outdoor dining facilities nestled right along the shore of Lake Jackson this boutique place alone would be worth our return.

Key West and most of the rest of the Florida Keys are on the dividing line between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The two bodies have different currents, with the calmer and warmer Gulf of Mexico being characterized by great clumps of seagrass. The area where the two bodies merge between Key West and Cuba is called the Straits of Florida. The warmest ocean waters anywhere on the United States mainland are found in the Florida Keys in winter, with sea surface temperatures averaging in the 75–77 °F range in December through February and we had the great fortune of visiting in early January.  Key West has a tropical climate (similar to the Caribbean islands) and according to the National Weather Service, the Florida Keys and Miami Beach are the only places within the contiguous United States to have never recorded a frost or freeze.

We stopped for lunch at Mile Marker 100, off the Overseas Highway, at Skippers Dockside Bar in Key Largo. The exterior of an old-fashioned Ice House and a 1940’s original filling station had enticed us to explore the restaurant’s oceanfront location. Here over an incredibly fresh tuna tartar and delicious fish tacos we watched a local fisherman filleting his catch on the dock and sharing the scraps with the pelicans and a hungry shark lingering in the waters below!

I have to admit that after all these years reading and hearing about Key West’s Old Town, the unforgettable sunsets at Mallory Square and its 1.1 mile long Duval Street we couldn’t believe we finally made it. The Island of Key West is about 4 miles long and only a mile wide, with a total land area of 4.2 square miles. We had booked a tiny apartment with a balcony (on airbnb)  in The Green House on Ann Street between Duval and Simonton, two blocks from the waterfront in the historic district. In short, where it all happens. The place was simple, cute and clean, and considering the price, location and parking around the corner, we couldn’t have asked for more.

We had a few places to see on our list that we definitely wanted to experience like, The Butterfly Conservatory, The Hemingway House, a sunset at Mallory Square, dining at Latitudes, Key Lime Pie, pictures at the Southernmost Point, The Farmer’s Market and Sloppy Joe’s Bar and did all that and more. By chance we had the most romantic lunch with exquisite cuisine on the ocean at Louie’s Backyard, and met two charming young ladies from Long Island (Kendra Dean Lee from East Islip, NY and her sister) at the Old Town Bakery (ham and cheese croissants to die for). We then did the Taco Tuesday special at the Sandbar Sports Grill accompanied by a whole bunch of chickens. Btw, chickens— roosters, chickens and their babies have the right o’ way here and they dictated what time we got up in the morning. Every morning! They don’t take a break and we couldn’t wait to get out of bed and take off for another colorful adventure. We walked the town and talked with many of the locals, and visitors like us. I am choosing the term ‘locals’ lightly because we met people who’d moved here from all over the US and other parts of the world, especially Argentina, Russia, Israel, Rumania, Poland, Venezuela and not to forget Montauk! Alan Steil and his wife Celeste, the former owners of the famous Montauk Bake Shoppe have a winter home here. I am sure my Montauk Sun readers remember my love for their infamous jelly croissants?!

One of our most unforgettable experiences was a stroll through the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory. Home to more than 60 species of butterflies and 20 species of exotic birds in a climate-controlled, glass enclosed conservatory. Cascading waterfalls and trees are setting the stage for these colorful, large-scaly wings creatures. Several of these beautiful, flying insects landed on our heads, shoulders and arms while the cameras of our fellow visitors were clicking away.

No doubt that dining at Latitudes was an experience that we wouldn’t want to have missed. From the ferry ride over to the private island, its palm-tree studded alfresco setting, the turquoise water views, and not to forget their fresh, flavorful island cuisine. No doubt that Sunset Key Cottages’ highly accoladed signature restaurant Latitudes, serves exquisite cuisine with stunning views of the Gulf of Mexico. Note: you’ve got to have reservations to hop on their private ferry.

Another one of our absolute favorite Key West restaurants was Louie’s Backyard, perched on the turquoise ocean waterfront and surrounded by palm trees and exotic flowering plants. As the story goes, when it opened in 1970, an unknown Jimmy Buffett lived in the house next door and palled around with waiter Phil Tenney, who is now Louie’s owner. Buffett’s cat Radar hung out with the bartender’s dog, and it is said that the two of them regularly bellied up to the bar.  In 1983, Phil and Pat Tenney purchased and lovingly renovated Louie’s with special attention to the maintenance of the building’s historical integrity and transformed it into the architectural gem it is today. Their efforts earned it a placement in the National Register of Historic Places. If we ever get to return to this little paradise island Key West and even if it’s just for the day on a stop with a cruise ship, this is the place where we’ll go back to dine. But we might not be as fortunate as we were this time when we met the star of the house personally, Chef Doug Shook. Mr. Shook, after over thirty years in Louie’s’ culinary saddle, is seriously considering a well deserved retirement.  Doug’s mouthwatering, creative Caribbean coastal cuisine of the day really drew the Hmmm’s and Ahhh’s out of us. Hard to fill these shoes, if you ask me.

I don’t think there’s any writer, serious or otherwise, who would pass up a visit to Hemingway’s domicile. We’d dedicated a whole morning to step back in time and explore this literary landmark, and the house and gardens that witnessed the most prolific period of his Nobel Prize winning writing career. Hemingway wrote and lived here for over a decade and wrote 70 percent of his lifetime work.

However, after 4 nights and 5 days we wished we would have had more time and hope that someday the smaller cruise ships, like Holland America Line, are able to return and we are on it and get to catch up on what we missed. I’d declared St Augustine, Florida to my favorite American city of all; well, America’s oldest town now has to share my love with Key West. Until next month from another interesting location.

~ Love, Ingrid

Ingrid Lemme-Chalut
Escape From Paradise, Travel-writer & Blogger
Award-winning TV Host, Publisher, Travel Writer
Ambassador for & 15 Emmy awards #EscapeFromParadise