Crazy beautiful sunset at Ft. Zach, where the locals go.

Crazy beautiful sunset at Ft. Zach, where the locals go.

KEY WEST, FLA  – I’m working in Key West this week, so I thought it fitting to share some of the flavors and scenes from this funky tropical paradise. Warning: Reading this will convince you to come here if for nothing else than to photograph the truly astonishing sunsets!

“Key West is so much more than just sun and fun,” said Corey Malcom, director of archaeology at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which we’ll visit later today. “We have an incredible history here that goes back 500 years from the Spanish Colonial period.”

For those of you who have never visited, this 4-mile by 2-mile island that has inspired so much great writing and great music goes far beyond its seven beaches and “main drag,” Duval Street…

But let’s get it out of the way: Duval Street is Key West’s best-known tourist street that’s dotted with a mix of funky bars, gay bars, outdoor restaurants (including a Hard Rock Cafe), upscale restaurants, cheap-T-shirt shops, a nude rooftop bar and one noticeable “for lease” storefront at the southern end. Don’t expect rows of luxury retailers here. After sunset, the southern end of the street gets busy with a mix of pedestrians, bicyclists and human-powered pedicabs. Hopefully you’re driving, but if you are, expect to drive at a crawl.

TWITTER: Tweets from Florida this week!

Another thing that makes this place so unique is that chains are relatively rare. By the numbers, Key West overall is home to two Five Guys, one Starbucks and one BurgerFi, one K-Mart, one Sears and one Outback.

Despite the limited land, the travel scene is exploding. Hotels are packed (the Hyatt Key West, for instance, is sold out this week), and Key West’s hotel rates have been rising this year vs. last year. Besides growing demand, a lack of supply is helping to push rates higher; many rooms are closed for renovation.

Foodies can also expect having more fun exploring Key West these days, as the foodie scene grows.

Interesting restaurants and craft-beer bars are popping up amid the old-school Cuban joints. With City Hall moving to a new location, locals expect more new restaurants will pop up in the surrounding blocks. Chefs are tapping into the evolving scene with new events. Daniel Higgins, chef de cuisine at the Hyatt Key West Resort & Spa’s Shor restaurant, for example, told me that he’s started doing upscale wine dinners that are becoming popular with visitors. For these upscale events ($85 per person), Higgins tosses the regular menu and creates a custom one based on the wine region that they are showcasing that particular night.

Among the restaurants I’ll come back to try is Seven Fish, a fish bistro housed in an unpretentious, one-story corner building in a residential neighborhood within walking distance of Duval Street. No flashy signs, and not many seats. A hidden gem.

Readers: Have you been to Key West lately? What stood out to you?

Tourists gather here at the marker that notes the southernmost point in the USA.

Tourists gather here at the marker that notes the southernmost point in the USA.

The funky Blue Heaven restaurant, where chickens roam freely.

The funky Blue Heaven restaurant, where chickens roam freely.

Locals and tourists alike hang out at Ft. Zach to wait for the big show - the sunset!

Locals and tourists alike hang out at Ft. Zach to wait for the big show – the sunset!

Musicians sometimes gather at Ft. Zach for the sunset.

Musicians sometimes gather at Ft. Zach for the sunset.

A snapshot of the touristy part of Duval Street.

A snapshot of the touristy part of Duval Street.

More hotel options will soon be available for budget-conscious visitors. This (Hilton-brand) hotel under construction will require a drive to a beach.

More hotel options will soon be available for budget-conscious visitors. This (Hilton-brand) hotel under construction will require a drive to a beach.

At the Hyatt Key West's  restaurant Shor, we grabbed a table with a prime location for sunset. Yes, it was super hot until the sun went down but we didn't want to give up the "show."

At the Hyatt Key West’s restaurant Shor, we grabbed a table with a prime location for sunset. Yes, it was super hot until the sun went down but we didn’t want to give up the “show.”

The signature drink here? The mojito, of course.

The signature drink here? The mojito, of course.

Cold oysters and a cold white wine hit the spot at the Hyatt's Shor restaurant, which serves sustainable fish and seafood.

Cold oysters and a cold white wine hit the spot at the Hyatt’s Shor restaurant, which serves sustainable fish and seafood.

The sunset crowd we saw at the Hyatt included boaters, couples holding hands and families.

The sunset crowd we saw at the Hyatt included boaters, couples holding hands and families.

 

The Hyatt's Shor restaurant won First Place for its classic key lime pie.

The Hyatt’s Shor restaurant won First Place for its classic key lime pie.