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Key West

Sunday, January 15, 2006

ATTRACTIONS AND DISTRACTIONS

* Be the southernmost tourist by standing at the large wide-striped buoy on Fleming and Whitehead streets, which marks the Southernmost Point in the continental U.S. (snap a photo, it's the thing to do). Go any more south and you'll end up in Cuba, 90 miles away.

* When evening looms, the freaks, uh, the street performers come out for the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square (305-292-7700, www.sunsetcele bration.org). The pier transforms into a virtual circus, including a neo-Houdini (chains, straitjacket, upside-down) and Dominique the Catman and his troupe of trained house cats.

* Come darkness, the revelry migrates to boisterous Duval Street, which becomes an open-air frat party, complete with bottomless cocktails, loud bands and a clothing-optional rooftop bar (the Garden of Eden, above the Bull and Whistle, 224 Duval St., 305-296-4565) where the peepers outnumber the pantsless.

* The Key West City Cemetery, a sprawling 1847 graveyard, has its fair share of historical names and monuments, but for some gallows humor, seek out the more irreverent sites. Pick up a map at the sexton's office at the main entry off Margaret Street and Passover Lane.

* Learn about the queen conch at the Key West Conch Baby Farm (631 Greene St., 305-296-3551, www.conchrepublicseafood.com; free), an aquarium filled with tanks of conchs the nonprofit hopes to raise and release into the wild.

* At the Key West Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden in Mallory Square (www.historictours.com/ keywest/SculptureGarden/index.htm; free), count heads -- the 36 busts depict the city's most notable personalities, including Ernest Hemingway and Harry S Truman.

* Get your culture/history/fish fix in the historic Clinton Square area, which includes the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum and the Audubon House. Grab a map at the Chamber of Commerce (402 Wall St., 305-294-2587, www.keywestchamber.org).

* To cover more ground, hop aboard the Conch Tour Train (305-294-5161, www.conchtourtrain.com; $25), which wends its way around the town's top attractions, including Sloppy Joe's Bar. Purchase tickets in Mallory Square.

* Papa slept here . . . at the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum (907 Whitehead St., 305-294-1136, www.hemingwayhome.com; $11). He also wrote some of his masterworks at the historic 19th-century house; keep an eye out for the six-toed cats, descendants of the author's polydactyl pet.

* Fort Zachary Taylor State Park (end of Southard Street past Truman Annex, 305-292-6713, www.floridastate parks.org; from $1.50) offers tours of a Civil War fort and one of KW's nicest beaches. You can also snorkel, kayak, fish, bird-watch and hike.

* See how tastes have changed at the Turtle Kraals Museum (200 Margaret St., 305-294-0209, www.seaturtlemuseum.org; free), a former turtle cannery that now nurses ailing or vulnerable turtles.

* The "Broadway 3 Ways" cabaret show (1125 Duval St., 305-296-6706, www.lateda.com; $24.50-$28.50) features a pair of queens and one straight man (well, almost), who sing and dance the best of Broadway.

* If you have a slap reflex, avoid the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory (1316 Duval St., 800-839-4647, www.keywestbutterfly.com; $10), where butterflies of all stripes float around in a stunning glass-bubble garden.

* Key West waters are filled with booze and sunset cruises, but for a more sober on-water experience take a starlight or full-moon kayak tour with Blue Planet Kayak (305-294-8087, www.blue-planet-kayak.com; $40) or an astronomer-led stargazer sail aboard the Western Union schooner (305-292-1766, www.keyweststargazer.com; $45).

* Get a taste of two Key West icons  Jimmy Buffett and the roaming chickens  on the Trails of Margaritaville tour and at the Chicken Store.

SHOPPING

* Kermit's Key West Key Lime Shoppe (200-A Elizabeth St., 305-296-0806) puts the tart green citrus in nearly every household item: condiments, jams, margarita mix, candles, soaps. Free samples!

* Find the sunnier side of SoHo style at Blue (718 Caroline St., 305-292-5172), a smart boutique that sells fashionably forward women's attire, such as military capris and ropes of colorful neck candy.

* Commotion (800 Caroline St., 305-292-3364) has a lock on linen, with racks of dresses, jackets, skirts and shirts for every occasion.

* The sponges at Mallory Square's Sponge Market, a mini-museum with a shop, are harvested nearby and are ideal for cleaning countertops, cars, unbathed bodies  or just sitting pretty on a shelf. Also in Mallory Square's marketplace, the Shell Warehouse has two ocean's worth of shells. 

* Peppers of Key West (602 Greene St., 800-KW-SAUCE) stocks 400 sauces, many with names as fiery as their contents.

* Key West has two art gallery rows: White Street and upper Duval Street (1100-1200 block). Of note: the Wave Gallery (1100 White St., 305-293-9428), for local and contemporary works; Harrison Gallery (825 White St., 305-294-0609), for bold creations on shutters, wood sculptures, etc.; and Gingerbread Square Gallery (1207 Duval St., 305-296-8900), for scenic-to-folksy paintings, art glass and more. 

* At Besame Mucho (315 Petronia St., 866-BESAME1), fill your home with wares that evoke a more romantic era, such as hand-painted lanterns, terra-cotta sugar bowls and brass scissors.

* For kitsch with a long shelf life, Fast Buck Freddie's (500 Duval St., 305-294-2007) peddles bamboo home accessories, tropical attire and the one-of-a-kind crab lamp. Half Buck Freddie's (726 Caroline St.) discounts leftovers from Fast Buck. 

* For trinkets that come in all colors and animal shapes, head to the Pelican Poop Shoppe (314 Simonton St., 305-296-3887). Before shopping, explore the secret garden out back, where Hemingway wrote "A Farewell to Arms."

LODGING

Click here for 10 Key West standouts.

EATING

* Mangoes (700 Duval St., 305-292-4606) dresses up the usual suspects (conch, yellowtail) and offers diners two tableside views: a front-row porch along Duval and a tucked-away courtyard. Dinner entrees $14-$25.

* At Pepe's Cafe (806 Caroline St., 305-294-7192), morning-after partiers crowd inside for rehabilitating breakfasts such as omelets stuffed with cream cheese and scallions ($7.50) and a tower of pancakes ($5.25).

* Harpoon Harry's (832 Caroline St., 305-294-8744) cooks up good ol' greasy diner food  that is, if your type of grease comes as a bagel with salmon and capers ($9.95). Sit at the counter and talk about the weather, or in the turquoise booths and listen to talk about the weather. 

* B.O.'s Fish Wagon (801 Caroline St., 305-294-9272) wins the prize for its top-notch fish sandwiches ($8 for fried, $9 for grilled) and oddball character (and characters).

* El Meson de Pepe (410 Wall St., 305-295-2620; entrees $13-$49.95 for paella for two) couldn't be any more Cuban, short of having Castro mix your mojito. The high-ceilinged, boisterous restaurant feels like a 1950s dance hall; the island fare includes stuffed green plantains and roasted pork in cumin-mojo sauce. (There's a second locale at 3800 N. Roosevelt.) 

* The Waterfront Market (201 William St., 305-296-0778) is no ordinary grocery: Its shelves are stocked with healthful snacks, organic produce, gourmet cheeses and other lunch fixings good for a picnic or to take upstairs to eat in the loft-nosh area.

* Turtle Kraals Restaurant (231 Margaret St., 305-294-2640) is an old turtle cannery that serves all kinds of seafood (mango crab cake, $9.95; seafood enchiladas, $14.95), minus the obvious one. On Mondays and Fridays, join in the turtle games, when six hard-shelled competitors race to the finish line. 

* Kelly "Top Gun" McGillis owns Kelly's Caribbean Bar and Grill (301 Whitehead St., 305-293-8484), a casual yet elegant eatery. In the outdoor dining area, dig into such entrees as crab ravioli ($13.95) or Caribbean apple chicken ($14.95).

* At Blue Heaven (729 Thomas St., 305-296-8666), even the chickens and cats under the tables can't distract diners from such dishes as organic black beans and rice tostados with jerk chicken, shrimp or tofu ($10 range). The restaurant, a favorite among vegetarians, specializes in American cuisine with a Caribbean flair.

* Though many gripe that Louie's Backyard (700 Waddell Ave., 305-294-1061) is too expensive (average dinner costs $45 each) and overrated, the view of the Atlantic will ease the pain in your wallet. Splurge on seafood, lamb chops or chicken with a Caribbean streak, or enjoy the same view with a less expensive lunch ($8-$18).

* New York stalwart Sarabeth's Key West (530 Simonton St., 305-293-8181) migrates south with such specialties as green chile pepper mac and cheese ($12) and a shrimp roll ($12-$14).

Andrea Sachs

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