Rick Steves’ philosophy of traveling through the back door is right up our alley. It’s a heckuva lot more fun to become a citizen of another culture, even for a short time, than to insulate yourself from it as a tourist.
It’s also more economical, as we learned a few years ago in Paris, where we rented a one-bedroom apartment for $83 a night. The bill was half the price of a comparable hotel room, and having a kitchen allowed us to live like Parisians for a week.
Mornings found us exploring every inch of the city via Métro. When exhausted and museumed out, we’d kick back with a leisurely, extravagant lunch at a restaurant, when the same fantastic food served at dinner was much cheaper.
Reinvigatorated, we’d play some more, then, on the way home, stop by the patisserie, fromagerie, the marché for a bottle of wine — piecing together simple yet remarkable meals with local ingredients to be cooked on our tiny stove while dancing to jazz on the radio.
Yeah, it didn’t suck.
So when planning last week’s trip to potentially touristy and spendy Key West, we gave that same idea a try, with great success.
Renting a condo on Smathers Beach, 2.5 miles from the popular Old Town, was a gamble that paid off — quiet streets, a nearby nature trail, and the best café con leche on the island at a walk-up counter practically invisible to the tour trolleys. Thanks to VRBO.com, our two-bedroom getaway with a kitchen and oceanfront balcony cost less than a studio-sized hotel room downtown.
We walked five to eight miles a day, which felt great — and wiped away any guilt upon stopping at the Cuban Coffee Queen for another con leche. A seven-day bus pass came in handy on rainy days, or when we were in the mood to see the far side of the island. (Note to writers: Before this trip, Brad thought Carl Hiaasen’s South Florida characters were unrealistically over-the-top. Now, after a few bus rides, we realize the literary restraint Hiaasen must have exercised. That $8 you spend on a bus pass will reap a notebook full of eccentric personalities. Don’t miss out.)
Lunches called for Peruvian feasts at Inca’s, Cuban manna at El Siboney, or gorgeous French salads at Banana Cafe.
We asked barkeeps and waiters where they shopped for fresh seafood. Before heading back to Smathers in the afternoon, we’d stop by the Eaton Street Seafood Market for $5 crab cakes or by the Rusty Anchor’s hidden market out back, where four servings of practically still-flipping yellowtail snapper cost $23.
Chasing it all down with regional brews from Fausto’s Food Palace, dinner each night on our balcony was downright decadent.
Want to see the spectacular Key West sunset? Forget the chaos on Mallory Square, jammed up with hundreds of fellow onlookers. The one we watched from an Atlantic Boulevard pier, with only a few fishermen and a curious osprey, was unsurpassed.
And as much as I love Hemingway, you couldn’t drag me through the crowded gates of his house. Instead, I quietly thanked Robert Frost, stopping at the unmarked cottage where he wrote many a poem.
Point is, nestled in the most heavily trafficked vacation spots are the charms that made those cities popular in the first place. Even in a tourist mecca like Key West, you don’t have to fall prey to the $5-T-shirt hawkers and musicians bellowing “Piano Man” like easy-listening sirens.
Instead, sneak in through that back door, buy your dinner on the dock from captains named Sweeney, and drink a café with locals at the laundromat. That dream of a vacation is more affordable and realistic than you might think.
Planning a trip to Key West? These tips might be helpful:
– Seven-day bus passes can be purchased on the bus for $8. When you board, tell the bus driver you’d like to buy one, and make sure to have exact change.
– Each bus stop has a four-digit code that can be found on the city’s transit website. Text KWEST xxxx to 41411 to find out when the next bus will be coming to that stop.
– Check the second page of the local paper, The Citizen, or the city’s cruise ship calendar to find out when cruise ships are scheduled to be in port. Stay far, far away from downtown during those times.
– Pick up a copy of the paper on Thursday for the following week’s arts and entertainment listings. There are lots of free lectures and gallery events open to the public.
– Take a stroll through the Key West Nature Preserve, and don’t miss the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. Both are free.
– Stop outside the Hemingway house for a photo, and be sure to check out the street artists in front of the gates.
– For 16 years, Robert Frost visited the cottage behind 410 Caroline St. It’s privately owned, so you can’t go in, but it’s nice to stop by and imagine the poet at work in the gardens.
– The end of September turned out to be a great time to visit, right before the busy snowbird season begins in October. Our VRBO was less than half the price it would have been only two weeks later, and our sailing excursion had only six passengers instead of the usual 20.
– Call 305-507-0300 in front of marked historic district sites for a free audio tour.
– Don’t miss the Tropical Forest and Botanical Garden, especially if they’re leading a Saturday morning bird hike.
– White Street Sandwich Shop has the best café con leche and buchi on the island and, as an added bonus, it’s the cheapest. Bring a travel mug since it’s served in styrofoam, and you can enjoy that hot cuppa all along your walk to Old Town.